Mugshot Websites: Modernizing Extortion for the Information Age?

As lawmakers across the U.S.A. look for the solution that will put an end to the online mugshot extortion racket, many proposals are being blocked by journalists as a first amendment impasse. A recently postponed bill in Virginia that proposes to update the state’s extortion statute seems like a viable way to avoid this conundrum:

“places, publishes, or otherwise disseminates on the Internet a photograph of an individual taken by a law-enforcement agency pursuant to the arrest of the photographed individual, and thereby extorts money, property, or pecuniary benefit or any note, bond, or other evidence of debt from him or any other person, is guilty of a Class 5 felony”

The idea of redefining the legal definition of extortion might be more attractive to journalists than exempting access to booking photos which they would view as an attempt to erode the FOIA. Ideas to rein in the commercial use of public records also receive criticism from the same direction. This is because when something is defined as public record, freedom of the press favors giving the public the benefit of unchecked control of these documents whether they exist as population statistics, government-employee expenditure reports, or your embarrassing mug shot.

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