John Doe would prefer not to use his real name for this story. He'd rather not put it on the résumés he hopes to submit when he attends this week's career fair at Georgia Tech, either. That's because he knows that a prospective employer is sure to Google him. And the first image likely to pop up when they search his real name is a mug shot.
Almost three years have passed since Doe was arrested for possession of heroin. After a foot surgery several years ago, he became addicted to painkillers. A "less than par" ex-girlfriend eventually introduced him to the hard stuff. But his arrest in Fulton County served as an intervention of sorts. Because he was a first-time drug offender, the county offered him a six-month pretrial diversion program, which he successfully completed, in lieu of conviction. The program included substance abuse classes and religious-based study.
And it gave Doe the opportunity to turn his life around. Today, he estimates that he's about a month away from having the charge expunged from his record.
"I've cleaned up my life a lot since then," he says.
Unfortunately, Doe hasn't been able to clean up his online identity. And to do so could cost a lot more dough than the doctoral student can afford on his $24,000/year student stipend.
Like a growing number of people across the nation, Doe has tussled with commercial mug shot websites that claim to operate under First Amendment protections while charging exorbitant fees to remove their mug shots in cases of non-conviction. It led Georgia State Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, to push for the recent passage of House Bill 150. The law created a process for people to have their mug shots removed, provided they meet a certain criteria, and protects people from a practice that Bruce has called "extortion."
But the law is so new, and the ownership of most mug shot sites so murky, that the state hasn't figured out how to enforce it. It's become a legal conundrum in which those once charged as criminals are now seeking justice under a state law meant to protect them from being unjustly labeled as such.
Googling oneself is usually an act of vanity. But not in Doe's case. At one point, he recalls, up to five or six sites produced his mug shot whenever he conducted an online search. To remove it, the sites charged anywhere between $29 to $400. (Some sites allegedly charge upwards of $1,000.) After paying to have his photo removed from the cheaper websites, two remained: justmugshots.com and mugshots.com.
Some mug shot websites can allegedly send users who desire to have their photos unpublished down a wormhole of different corporate registration agents and partnered companies randomly located throughout the country and abroad.
When Doe found out about HB 150 passing this year in Georgia, he was relieved. "I was like, this is great. I'm not going to have to pay all this money to get it removed," he says. But then came the hard part, he says. He had to track down the registered agents behind the corporations that operated the sites and an address to mail the required certified letter requesting his mug shot's removal. After almost endless Google searches, which brought him to scores of complaints from people in a similar situation, Doe says he finally found an address for justmugshots.com. After multiple letters and emails, justmugshots.com finally took down his mug shot. But the cached image is still the first to come up in searches.
That's the irony of the Internet. It makes it easy for some individuals to hide their true identity even while doing permanent damage to others'. When SEO (search engine optimization) is GOD, PageRank algorithms often trump the truth.
Doe says he even asked his parents to stop searching for him on the Web because each click only added to his desperation. "They're like, 'Oooh, your mug shot is on the front page now of Google when you search for it,'" he says. "And I'm like, 'Holy shit, mom, please stop clicking on the picture.'"
The effort to contact mugshots.com, Doe says, has been less successful. Another search led him to a Delaware address for the registered agent behind Mugshots, LLC. When he sent the company a certified letter, he claims it returned unopened last week with a message that read, "We're no longer a registered agent of Mugshots.com."
When the Associated Press covered mug shot websites three months ago, it dug up Florida attorney Marc G. Epstein as the representative of mugshots.com, which reportedly listed an address on Nevis, an island in the Caribbean. Epstein defended the company on the grounds of freedom of speech.
"The First Amendment gives people the right to do this," Epstein, who did not return a request for comment before CL went to press, told the AP. "I don't think there was ever a First Amendment that contemplated the permutations of communication that we have now."
Since HB 150's passage, Bruce says he receives approximately 50 calls per week from Georgians thanking him for the law and complaining about their difficulties in getting companies to comply. He asks people having similar difficulty to contact him at the state capitol. "We're also looking for ideas from people to see what they're going through to tweak the law and make it better."
That probably won't help Doe in the immediate future. With his aspirations of becoming a university professor on the ropes, he's close to waving the white flag. "I'm basically screwed. I might have to pay the $400 ... but I don't know what I can do."