Digital extortion: Mug-shot sites should not charge to remove photos

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In the mad scramble for cash, there's probably no limit to how low some human beings will sink. A case in point: Websites that post police mug shots and then charge those who were photographed for taking their pictures off the site, even if they were found not guilty or had their case dismissed.

Such information, even if it's inaccurate, can prevent people from finding employment or housing, but removing it can cost up to $178. There's a word for this kind of work: extortion.

Attorney Scott Ciolek is fighting at least five of these sites in a class-action lawsuit in Lucas County, Ohio. The suit claims that mug-shot sites that charge removal fees have catalogued more than 250,000 people. In an interview with the Post-Gazette's Jonathan D. Silver, the lawyer said he may file suit in Pittsburgh next year because of similarities in Pennsylvania law.

Over the past decade, most state corrections departments have published offender tracking sites that list, with photos, those who are serving prison, probation or parole sentences. Besides photos, such sites generally include basic information such as the offender's age, conviction and sentence.

Many such sites wisely restrict listings to those who are serving sentences. When ex-offenders are no longer supervised, their photos and data are routinely removed. That is not the case with some third-party, for-profit sites.

Any offender tracking site can make it difficult for people to find jobs and housing -- that is, to re-enter society successfully, which is a goal of every corrections agency. Sexual offender lists are especially problematic; they frequently include reporting errors or fail to distinguish among different kinds of sexual offenses.

Even so, government-run offender tracking sites serve the public interest, unlike sites that use information, however misleading or inaccurate, to extort profits.

Whether those sites take unfair advantage will be decided in court. Meanwhile, the court of public opinion should see the operators of such sites for the bottom feeders they are.

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