Once it gets on the Internet, information tends to be indelible. After a “leak” of a fact gets posted online, it gets copied, shared, and repeated. This tendency is so infamous that it even earned the nickname “the Streisand effect.” In 2003, the entertainer objected to unauthorized photos of her home being posted online, with all attempts to censor them ironically spurring the wider distribution of them.
If a famous actress can’t get paparazzi photos of her own property removed from the Internet, what chance does a mugshot have? The odds of removing a mugshot are slim, and then only from select sites where people would likely do a mugshot search. But we’ll examine the problem from all angles to see how far you can reasonably expect to get.
Requests to mugshot databases
Reputable websites which store arrest records and related information should have a policy in place where a subject can write in requesting the mugshot be removed. Some sites do have a policy in place where they will pull down arrest information is the subject can prove they were not convicted, were falsely charged, had their case thrown out, or had the record sealed.
But there are many more websites which won’t comply with such a request. In the United States, the First Amendment protects the press and the freedom of speech, as long as they are not committing libel or slander. The fact of intentional falsehood must be attached to libel and slander. It is slander to say that John Doe was arrested when no such incident occurred. It is not slander to find John Doe’s mugshot and report it on a blog. Therefore, few legal methods exist to force a website to remove a matter of public record.
Some other large Internet companies, such as Google, Facebook, or Yahoo, might do the courtesy of removing a mugshot if the subject can present the claim that it’s causing them undue damages. But again, even if they comply this is a matter of removing the data from their own search index.
“Information wants to be free.”
This is a common phrase heard on the Internet, referring to the way that the Internet collectively resists restriction and censorship. Since the Internet is so good at redundant data retention, there isn’t that much of a point in removing a mugshot from a single website.
Any public-facing web page can expect to be duplicated within minutes to the indexes of various search engines, and become permanent record on mirror sites and RSS feeds. Lacking that, the Internet Archive project even stores past records of websites, in snapshots taken at certain intervals. Archives such as these are an example of the redundant nature of information on the web.
Even if you can wave a magic wand and delete all copies of a photo from everywhere online at once, you never know when somebody already saved a local copy of an image to repost later.
Why do we have mugshots?
Mugshots are more of a matter of protecting the individual citizen than the public. Forcing the legal system to be completely transparent is how we help enforce civil liberties and fair treatment for all citizens. Mugshots, along with other identification methods, prevent false arrest, guard against official corruption, and help correct simple mistakes of identity.
One should also bear in mind that a mugshot is far away from a criminal conviction, which is why the laws on posting mugshots are so permissive. Given the standard of “innocent until proven guilty,” prospective employers are even required by law to discount all criminal records from their consideration of those incidents do not end in a conviction in a court of law.
If it’s any consolation, none other than Bill Gates, Silicon Valley mogul, and Microsoft founder, also has his mugshot online. This was allegedly related to a traffic violation in his youth. It just goes to show, you can live with a mugshot online and still not have it hamper your success.