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Are Mugshots Public Domain in the United States?

Are mugshots public domain in the United States?

If you’ve ever wondered, “are mugshots public domain?” this guide will help you understand why your mugshots are online and how you can get them removed once and for all.

If you’ve ever been arrested for any circumstances, chances are your mugshots and arrest details were collected and shared by law enforcement agencies.

Eventually, those same agencies may release mugshots to the public. From there, mugshot sites republish the mug shots for reasons unrelated to the arrest or criminal charges.

When your mug shot appears in search results, your reputation and your privacy can be damaged.

In our guide below, we will cover why mugshots are part of the public domain and answer all the related questions about why your mugshots are online and how to remove them.

What is the Public Domain?

Despite its common use in copyright law and copyright claims, the term “public domain” is not defined by any copyright statutes.

Generally, the term “public domain” is used to refer to any records, creative works, or content that isn’t specifically protected by copyright law. This can include:

  • Works where the copyright has expired.
  • Work produced by the United States government, state law enforcement officials, or local entities.
  • Works that do not have a valid copyright notice prior to March 1989.
  • Works that are not specifically original, including records republished or copied from public records or government documents.

Mug shots may or may not be part of the public domain; under federal government guidelines, mugshots produced by federal agencies are automatically included, while documents, records, and images produced by state or local agencies are governed by unique laws. Many states have passed laws regarding the sharing or distributing of certain public records, including that mug shot or arrest photo from your interaction with the police department.

Why Do Law Enforcement Agencies Post Mugshots Online?

When you are arrested and booked with a crime, the police department or sheriff’s office typically takes booking photographs as part of the process. These are more commonly referred to as mug shots.

After an arrest, all arrest records and booking photos are published online. Why do government agencies do this? The simple answer is: they may not have a choice. Certain open records laws, such as Florida’s “Laws in the Sunshine,” require all public records to be collected and shared online.

The Federal Government and Public Domain Records

As stated earlier, all works made by federal agencies are automatically part of the public domain. Agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Prisons, and Drug Enforcement Administration must share each photo and record collected for law enforcement purposes.

What Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Say About Online Mugshots

Federal agencies have their hands tied when it comes to posting your booking photo or mug shot. Copyright law does not apply; agencies are required to share all records produced by the federal government with the general public.

These federal agencies have no say in what states or other local entities do with arrest details, mug shots, or other records collected. As long as privacy laws are adhered to by the individual states, police photos and images collected as part of an arrest will be shared with the public.

How Did My Arrest Photos Get Published to Mugshot Websites?

Mugshots have a sneaky way of turning up in the most unexpected places online. Why are your mugshots online, and how did they get there?

There are three primary sources for mugshots published to the web:

Public Records

Any time you deal with a government agency, official records of that interaction may become part of the public record. Typically, civil records and arrest records collected by federal, state, or local agencies are collected and shared in response to public records laws enacted by local governments as well as federal agencies, state recordkeeping agencies, and more. Nearly every agency involved in capturing and processing criminals publishes arrest photos online as part of the public record.

When your mug shot is published by a federal agency or even local entities, it is done so in keeping with public domain requirements. In other words, your mug shots may be part of the public domain.

Data Aggregators/Data Brokers

Once public court records and other information are collected and distributed by government agencies in the digital environment, they tend to spread quickly. The culprits in this viral spread of sensitive information are “people finder” websites, sometimes called data brokers or “data aggregators.”

Data aggregators and information brokers use automated tools to scrape publically-available records from government databases, then republish this information on their own websites. Some data brokers specialize in state law enforcement records, while others will target the records of federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI and federal prisons, sheriff’s office records from each county of a particular state, or police files on the local and state levels.

Data brokers may provide free access to public information, or they may charge a fee for individuals to gain access to records. In either case, potential employers conducting a background check may be able to find your past — including arrest information, mugshots, and criminal histories — even if you were wrongfully arrested.

Mugshot Websites

In simple terms, mugshot websites are a form of data broker, republishing information collected in the public domain (from government websites and databases) and hosting it on their own sites.

Mugshot websites have become incredibly popular. Many of them started by posting celebrity mugshots, then expanded their offerings to include criminal charges of every average person who has been arrested or detained by law enforcement officials.

Some websites only post mug shots, while others include a person’s criminal history, arrest and court records, or private or personal information. If one site gets your booking or other photos, those mugshots may suddenly appear on multiple websites.

The internet loves crime stories, making mugshot websites incredibly popular with internet users. Because these sites are so popular and get so much web traffic, they tend to rank at or near the top of search results. Google Ads or other advertisements placed on these sites rake in money, giving site owners the incentive to keep posting booking photos — even of innocent people.

Each mugshot site uses a variety of strategies to justify the publication of mug shots and arrest records. In most cases, new media rights like the Freedom of Information Act, publication in the public interest, and First Amendment-protected free speech are all used to create a justification for sharing embarrassing images.

One mugshot can start the ball rolling; before you know it, other mugshot websites pick up your embarrassing arrest photo. In no time, your digital reputation will be damaged, and you may struggle to restore trust between you and others.

Getting Your Mugshot Removed from Mugshot Websites

Even though mugshots are typically part of the public domain, there are certain circumstances and restrictions regarding how they’re used, how they’re shared, and what people can do to get them removed.

Because they are part of the public record, however, they will remain there until you begin the process of removal.

There are three potential ways to get your mugshot taken down:

Reach out to mugshot websites

Find out where your mugshot is posted online, then contact each mugshot website owner to request removal. A written request is the best way to get the process started; in that request, state why you want mugshots removed and make your claim as to why your request should be granted.

Most mugshot websites will honor removal requests, provided the requester can demonstrate a specific reason or government documents that show your charges were dropped. Valid reasons include attacks on personal privacy, violations of privacy laws, expungement of criminal charges, etc.

Expunge your criminal history

Expungement, also known as expunction,  is the court-ordered process whereby a person’s arrest report, criminal record, or mugshot images are removed from public records. In essence, an expungement is a form of setting aside a criminal conviction.

You or your attorney can apply to have records expunged or your case sealed. Typically, this request is made via court order to the Clerk of Courts and may require legal assistance to complete. Once your request for expungement has been granted, your online mugshot can be removed from government agencies’ records and public records databases. From there, the law requires mugshot websites to remove mugshots or face civil penalties like fines or loss of service.

Hire a mugshot removal team

While there are hundreds of mugshot removal websites claiming to offer services — even a courtesy removal service — the leading mugshot removal companies use proven strategies to get your booking photos taken down once and for all.

These removal services may use a range of tools, including:

  • Formal requests for removal
  • Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices
  • Terms of Service (ToS) violation notices to internet service providers (ISPs)

Some of the best mugshot removal companies also use proven online reputation management strategies not only to remove mugshots but to restore the damaged reputations their clients experienced. With comprehensive services like these, a person can clear his or her name and once again be proud of their digital footprint.

Contact OnlineReputation Today

OnlineReputation is a leader in information resources for the online reputation management industry. Our guides provide the details you need to make informed decisions about choosing the right services for your reputational needs, including services related to mugshot removal.

Wiping your mugshot from the internet can be a complex and frustrating process. Our guides to mugshot removal law by state, mugshot removal in Florida, and many other information resources make it easy to understand your options, empowering you to make smart decisions.

To learn more about mugshot removal options, contact our office today at 844-230-3803 for a free consultation.

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