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Mukherji & Oliver Bill to Crack Down on For-Profit Mugshot Website Industry Clears Assembly Committee

Legislation Assembly Democrats Raj Mukherji and Sheila Oliver sponsored to protect the public from websites that publish mugshots or other criminal justice information and then charge for their removal recently was advanced by an Assembly committee.

“The law should not condone the extortion that is occurring when websites publish the mugshots of ex-offenders in the process of reintegrating or those who were arrested or prosecuted for a crime but ultimately found not guilty,” said Mukherji (D-Hudson). “The public has the right to access certain information regarding those arrested for, accused of or prosecuted for a crime, but we should protect our citizens from those who abuse the system for profit and force them to pay sometimes exorbitant fees for the removal of this information. For those acquitted, an internet search for their name yields a mugshot and their reputations may be permanently ruined for something they didn’t do. That diminishes the role of the justice system as the authority on culpability.”

The bill (A-2085) would prohibit entities from publishing mugshots or rap sheets online with the intent of subsequently charging subjects to have a photo or information removed.

The sponsors noted that, although the acquisition of criminal records is not always malicious, ill-intentioned parties can use such information to cause harm. While an employer may conduct a background check as part of an effort to assess a job candidate’s character, for example, some companies obtain governmental records with the true intent of posting them online and then coercing subjects to pay the website operator to remove the information to avoid embarrassment, adverse employment or social consequences and other repercussions.

“Taking advantage of the public record and using that information to harass or embarrass someone is wrong,” said Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic). “Mugshot websites exist simply to impugn people’s character for economic gain, and there ought to be a consequence for doing so.”

A person who knowingly violates the provisions of the bill would be liable to the person whose information he or she published or threatened to publish, who may bring a civil action in superior court. The court may award damages of $1,000 for each solicitation to refrain from disclosure of protected information and $10,000 for each actual disclosure, in addition to punitive damages, attorney’s fees and any other penalties the court deems appropriate. The violation also would be considered a disorderly persons offense, which generally is punishable by up to six months in a county jail.

The measure was advanced Thursday by the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee.