AUSTIN -- A KVUE Defenders investigation has uncovered a growing online industry making big bucks with people's mug shots.
While legal, some argue the website owners make money by exploiting individuals’ misfortunes.
Here's how it works: After an arrest, police take a mug shot of an accused criminal. It's then published on a police website where companies legally download the pictures.
Next the site reposts the mug shots of alleged lawbreakers online and often charges the accused hundreds of dollars to remove those photos.
"It's public shaming. It’s wrong. It’s humiliation," contends Tim Donnely.
The Fort Worth man found his mug shot online about two years ago while looking for a job. When potential employers stopped calling, he decided to search his name.
"Sure enough I Googled my name and there's two sites that have my mug shots on it," said Donnely.
While in college in 2009, police arrested him for assault involving a fight. At first the website took his mug shot down for free. Sure enough it popped back up again.
When Donnely tried to have it removed, he was told it would cost money this time. Even if he did pay, he'd still have to spend potentially hundreds of dollars removing his mug shot from other websites.
“It's kind of a slimy business that you're exploiting someone's misfortune," said State Senator Tommy Williams.
The Woodlands Republican passed legislation this year to make it easier for the accused to get mug shots removed. Under the law, websites must remove mug shots for free if the accused shows proof the website posted incomplete information, if the charges were dropped or if found 'Not Guilty.' Find out more about the law here.
The law still allows websites to charge people money to remove mug shots even if they’re convicted of minor crimes. Senator Williams admits the law could have more teeth.
“I think it could use some more work frankly," Williams said.
While none of the website owners agreed to on-camera interviews, one did change its policy this week. In an email, BustedMugShots.com wrote the KVUE Defenders that it "will no longer accept payments for any arrest record removals."
They say they will only remove mug shots if someone can prove their record is sealed, expunged, ordered non-disclosure, or if the person died. BustedMugShots.com still makes some money off mug shots. According to a company spokesperson, individuals can "opt out of having their arrest records publically available" after 30 days on the website.
But paid subscribers can still see the pictures.
“It's a way of making money off of an unfortunate situation," contends Ana Yanez-Correa, the executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "You're not punishing the person who has committed the crime. You're punishing their families that they cannot support.”
Donnelly eventually found a job. While his mug shot remains online, he now runs a website of his own. It’s called ClassActionAgainstMugshotWebsites.com. He created it to help educate people on their rights if their mug shot is posted online.
Some states, like Georgia, have banned websites from charging money to remove mug shots. Discover Card tells the KVUE Defenders it no longer accepts charges from mug shot websites.