Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Raj Mukherji, Sheila Oliver and Angela McKnight to protect the public from websites that publish mugshots or other criminal justice information and then charge for their removal has been signed into law.
“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 new law (S-1840/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.”
“This amounts to a shakedown,” said McKnight (D-Hudson). “These websites can hurt innocent people, and make rebuilding harder for those who have made mistakes, paid for them and now want to redeem themselves. This practice is abhorrent and should not be tolerated.”
A person who knowingly violates the law’s provisions would be liable to the person whose personal identifying information was disclosed, who may bring a civil action in Superior Court. The court may award: (1) actual damages, but not less than liquidated damages computed at the rate of $1,000 for each solicitation to refrain from disclosure of protected information and $10,000 for each actual disclosure of the information; (2) punitive damages upon proof of willful or reckless disregard of the law; (3) reasonable attorney’s fees and other litigation costs reasonably incurred; and (4) any other preliminary and equitable relief the court determines to be appropriate.
In addition, a person would be liable for a civil penalty of not less than $500 for each act of solicitation prohibited by the law and a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 for each act.