The Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Richland County will no longer post online mugshots of people who are arrested in the Columbia area.
The move comes after Richland County Councilman Seth Rose, who is a criminal defense attorney, said many of his clients had been complaining that some websites were copying the photos and posting them. Anyone identified in the photos must pay those other websites hundreds of dollars to take the photos down, even if the charges are later dropped.
Rose called it extortion. “It’s just not right,” he told South Carolina Radio Network, “It’s a brilliant business model, but the problem is it’s not ethical.”
The University of South Carolina’s student newspaper Daily Gamecock first reported on the issue last week. It said that jail officials decided to take down the photos on October 15 after meeting with Rose and members of the county attorney’s office. Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said he had not been aware of the website prior to the meeting.
Rose says the worst offender is a site called mugshots.com, which posts the photos in its web database. It then advertises its sister site Unpublisharrest.com, which charges up to $399 to remove the photos, even if the subject was not convicted. A person who worked for the website said they would not comment when reached Monday. However, the site does have a disclaimer that mentions each person featured on the website is “innocent until proven guilty.” It is also important to note that the website’s actions are legal.
Rose said he is working with Columbia legislators to come up with possible changes to the law on a statewide level. He found a sympathetic ear in Reps. Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia) and James Smith (D-Columbia), two attorneys who said they had also heard about the problem from their own clients.
“It used to be that people were worried about being found guilty,” Rutherford said, “Now the first thing my clients want to know is, ‘Is my picture going to be on the internet?’ They’ve been convicted of nothing and those websites don’t even follow up… and say whether somebody was found guilty.”
Rose said one of his clients had charges dropped, but still could not get his photo taken off the site without paying the fee. He said many of his clients are students who “made a mistake,” but were able to get their charges dropped after going through pre-trial intervention programs. He said those students are worried that potential employers will find their images on Google or other search engines.
He made it clear that he had no problem with photos of convicted inmates remaining in the public domain.
Richland County jail officials say they will still provide booking photos if requested by media outlets. However, blanket requests will not be honored, Rose said. Anyone can still do an “inmate search” to see Richland County jail records. However, there will no longer be a booking photograph attached.
Richland County is not unique. Other South Carolina counties have booking photos posted on their own sites, including Horry, Greenville, and Lexington counties, among others.