Creating lawsuits that target the operators of mugshot websites seems to be the hip, savvy thing to do. We've seen it happen in both Oregon and Florida, and recently, Colorado jumped on the bandwagon. At first, I didn't think this particular law made much sense to write about, as it seemed awfully similar to other bills that are working their way through other states. But, now that I've been tracking this bill for a few months and I've seen some of the changes that are taking hold in the bill, I got a little intrigued. The Initial Bill Representative K.C. Becker introduced the bill in January of 2014, and at the time, she used the word "modest" to describe her goals. It's a word I agree with. Here, people who had been acquitted of a crime but who still had a mugshot up and running on a commercial site could sue if they notified the administrator of the site that the photo was still in place. They couldn't be charged for a removal of that photograph, and if the administrator of the site didn't comply, the harmed party could sue. At the time, this bill seemed soft and pretty likely to pass. But, I also think it seems pretty unlikely that this bill would actually help anyone. The onus of responsibility in this bill is placed on the shoulders of the person who appears on the website. This person has to track down the paperwork that proves his/her innocence, find the address of the mugshot publisher, provide that paperwork and then hire a lawyer to sue if the photos don't come down. That's a lot of running around to do, and hiring a lawyer might be out of reach for some people. It's difficult to find a specific price a Colorado lawyer might charge to take a case like this, but one online analysis by a business lawyer suggests that typical lawsuits cost about $50,000, from start to finish. Some lawyers take cases on a sort of pay-as-you-go basis, but others demand their money upfront. If this bill passed and the only way to get relief involved paying $50 grand, I think many people might choose to find another route to relief. Equally troubling is the idea that people could only get relief if they had been acquitted or otherwise been proven innocent of their crimes. In Colorado, that could be a very small number. Research published in The Gazette suggests that Colorado prosecutors used plea bargains in 97.6 percent of cases that came through the system between the years of 2006 and 2011. That means almost everyone who entered the system admitted to doing something. Someone who takes a plea is certainly not declared innocent, which means someone like this might not get mugshot relief. Those who do head to court without a plea are also not likely to get acquitted, as statistics from the Steamboat Pilot & Today suggests that of 48 felony trials in Boulder County, conviction rates stood at 73 percent. People who go to court just tend to get convicted at the end of it all, and when they do, they have no real mugshot relief. So when I put these sets of statistics together, it seemed likely that this law would pass and that it wouldn't be all that helpful to people facing mugshot problems in Colorado. But when the bill moved to the Senate, things really started to get interesting. Amended Version This new version of the bill placed an extremely tight set of restrictions on mugshot access. In short, people who want to obtain a mugshot must now sign a document in which they assert that they don't plan to use the photograph for commercial gain. Someone who lies and grabs the photo and plans to make money off of it is committing a misdemeanor and can be responsible for a fine of $1,000. Now, this is a very different kind of bill. Rather than providing protections for people who have been acquitted, and asking those people to prove their innocence, this bill bans the actual gathering of mugshot photographs at the source. Mugshot administrators simply won't be able to get the photographs, if this passes, and that might protect people who are both innocent and guilty. In general, this is the sort of thing that makes reporters and other open-access advocates absolutely crazy. They dislike the idea that they must jump through a series of hoops in order to gain access to records that are generated by agencies that are supported by the federal government. They want this kind of access to be free, easy and open. I have no doubt that there will be a great hue and cry about this bill. Similarly, the bill must be passed by a majority of voters in a general election in November. At the moment, mugshot websites are declining in popularity in Colorado, but they still seem to maintain the attention of many. For example, metrics from Competitive Intelligence suggests that visitors look at almost 4 pages when they scroll over to Mugshots.com, and the average daily amount of time spent on the site is 3 minutes. Many people seem eager to look at photos, and if this is the case, people might not be willing to vote for a bill that would put those sites out of business. Watching and Waiting At the moment, it's impossible to predict what will happen with this particular bill. It could pass, it could fail or it could be amended yet again. It might even be challenged in a higher court. But it's something we'll be watching closely. Meanwhile, if you need help with a mugshot taken in Colorado, click here. We'd love to help.
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