A friend of mine got into some trouble recently. He left a bar after having a few drinks, got in his car and headed home. On the way he was pulled over by a highway patrolman and arrested for driving while intoxicated. I’ll spare you the long and sad story of his journey through the legal system but suffice it to say it was very expensive — my friend paid enormous legal bills, actually lost his job and insurance, and had his car impounded — even though he was never convicted of a crime. And while he didn’t do any jail time, he paid an enormous price just the same.
A few weeks after my friend finished with his ordeal and started rebuilding his life, he was punished again. But this time he was punished by a private industry that uses the democratized information the Internet provides along with a well-intentioned Florida state law to extort people who have had legal trouble.
Here’s what Safe Shepherd — a website that offers “news and resources on privacy” — says about one of these services, Mugshots.com:
“Mugshots.com (and similar sites) scrape police databases for mug shots and then display the pictures and other arrest information on their website. Many police records are legally required to be made public (registered sex offenders), but having every arrest record published to the Internet becomes an invasion of privacy. Due to regulations, most Americans don’t have to worry about an arrest record tarnishing their reputation, but unfortunately for citizens of Florida, the state’s Sunshine Laws make all arrest records public, meaning that if you were ever arrested in Florida your mug shot will be on the Internet – forever.
…In order to remove your mug shot from Mugshots.com you are required to pay a third party affiliate $399 to conduct the removal… With no other options available to remove your picture from Mugshots.com, paying $399 to remove your record more than borders on extortion.
Perhaps the most concerning part of Mugshots.com is that your picture is posted immediately after the arrest, so even if you are never convicted of the crime, your mug shot will still be immortalized on the Internet… unless of course you pay the $399.”
I’m not suggesting that drunk drivers shouldn’t be punished for their actions. But since my friend wasn’t convicted of a crime, he should have been considered innocent until proven guilty. And even if he had been found guilty and served his sentence, what right would a private company have to further punish him by continuing to promote his crime after he had paid his debt to society? What’s more, Mugshots.com is only one of the companies that uses the state’s access to information laws to extort money from people who have been arrested. So even after he paid their $399 fee, my friend still had to research other companies who post his pictures and pay them off as well.
There’s an old public relations adage that says it doesn’t matter what kind of press you get as long as they spell your name right. In Washington DC political circles the tasteless but ubiquitous maxim is that bad press is never bad unless you’re caught with a live boy or a dead girl. But in this day and age of accessible information and the 24/7 amateur news cycle, this kind of irresponsible — if not criminal — activity can destroy a brand overnight and forever.
It also proves a third adage which applies just as aptly to branding as to politics and child-rearing: It’s easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble.