California bill targets websites engaged in 'mug shot racket'

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California lawmakers took steps on Monday to bar so-called extortion websites from posting mug shots of people who have been arrested and then demanding payment to remove the photographs, even from people who are never charged with a crime. A bill to make it unlawful to solicit or accept payment to remove, correct or modify mug shots online was unanimously passed by the California state senate on Monday, in the latest effort by more than a dozen U.S. states to stop such practices. The California measure was inspired by the case of Bob DeBrino, who was arrested but never charged for driving under the influence while on prescription medication for an impending surgery, according to the bill's author, state senator Jerry Hill. DeBrino's booking photo was posted online, and the film producer said he lost business as a result, Hill said in a news release. The websites that posted the picture are demanding thousands of dollars from DeBrino to remove the image, said Hill, a Democrat who represents the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo. In what legislative researchers for the senate called an unintended consequence of laws making mug shots and other arrest information available to the public, a growing industry has developed that publishes mug shots on a website and then charges those depicted in the photos to remove their images. "This practice is part of a growing niche industry, 'the mug-shot racket,'" senate researchers wrote in their analysis of the bill. The bill, which goes next to the state assembly, would impose fines on violators of $1,000 or force them to pay damages and attorneys fees for victims. If it passes, California would become the sixth state to make it illegal to charge people to remove mug shots from websites, after Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, Texas and Utah, Hill's office said. Another 14 states are considering such legislation, his office said. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernard Orr)