New legislation signed into law by Governor Nikki Haley on Tuesday would crack down on websites that post mug shots and charge hundreds of dollars to remove them.
Both the House and Senate unanimously approved the final language earlier this month. The new law targets those websites that post arrest records and booking photos by declaring such sites to be “transacting business” in South Carolina.
Lead sponsor State Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, said such sites currently demand money to take the mug shot down even if the individual is later cleared of any crime.
“What they do is they extort money from people,” the Charleston attorney said. “Obviously, if the charge has been dismissed or they’ve been found not guilty, then the information is not accurate. So what they end up doing currently is they will request hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to remove it from their website.”
The new legislation bans those websites from charging a fee to remove the information. It also requires the site to remove the photo if contacted by an individual who was later cleared of the charges or had them dropped. The website operator would face up to $1,000 in fines and/or two months in prison if they do not comply.
Thurmond said having mug shots so easily visible on the internet can prevent a person from being hired or hurt them in child custody cases.
“Frankly, some of these websites provide a service to the public in that regard,” he admitted. “But when you are found not guilty, or when the charge is (not prosecuted) or dismissed, you should have the comfort to know that you’re not going to be extorted for hundreds of dollars by some random company just because they pulled your mug shot off of a public domain.”
The law does exempt newspapers or online news sites, but encourages them to post updated information if the individual is cleared. The language was added at the request of the South Carolina Press Association, which stated the public has a right to know if prominent individuals or elected officials are arrested and have the charges dropped.
With the exemption added, SCPA Executive Director Bill Rogers said “We were okay with it from our standpoint.”
While there was little opposition to Thurmond’s original goal, the bill was held up after the House inserted separate language that would allow those who have been pardoned to have their records erased and those whose charges are dismissed would see their criminal record expunged. A conference committee removed the language on Feb. 3. Thurmond said he backed the idea, but did not want the potentially divisive issue included in his own bill.