RALEIGH — A provision in the Senate budget bill passed last week would create restrictions for online jail mug shots and ban companies from charging people to take them down.
Slipped into the $21.2 billion budget, the measure is aimed at companies that profit by posting the mug shots online. It’s one of several provisions in the 275-page budget that does not appear to be directly related to government spending. Critics have lamented so-called “special provisions” in previous budgets saying they should be considered separately.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, said it was narrowly tailored to only apply to commercial websites. He said he was alerted to the mug shot websites by NC Justice Center, which advocates for the poor.
John Bussian, attorney with the North Carolina Press Association, said the provision could have far-reaching impacts on the freedom of the press.
“The consequences of passing something like this would easily be felt in other areas because that idea could be transported from one kind of record to the next to the next to the next,” Bussian said.
The intent is to prevent extortion and protect citizens who have been charged with a crime then cleared, said Goolsby.
“We are not doing it in any way to restrict newspapers,” he said.
He said he was open to possibly changing the language if it infringed on newspapers or created challenges to the open records law.
Rep. Leo Daughtry, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a budget-writer on criminal justice matters, said the provision shouldn’t be in the budget.
“It should go to the Judiciary Committee. Then you can amend it and fix it and decide whether it’s good public policy,” said Daughtry, R-Johnston.
The bill would require a publisher of a print publication or website operator to remove any mug shots and any other personal or criminal record information within 15 days when requested to do so, if the person’s charges were dismissed or they were acquitted. If the website or paper refuses, they would be fined $100 per week. After 45 days, there would be a “presumption of defamation of character.”
Any person requesting a copy of a mug shot must provide a written statement promising not to post the photo on a website that requires a fee for it to be removed.
Eight other states have passed laws outlawing these type of websites. North Carolina’s law is based on Utah’s, according to Bill Rowe, an attorney with the NC Justice Center.
Rowe said the provision was meant to prevent and stop the exploitation of innocent people.
“The idea was not to limit the press but more to stop charging folks fees who are actually not guilty of a crime to get their mug shots taken down off the internet,” he said.
It’s questionable whether mug shots are actually public records in North Carolina, said Frayda Bluestein, a professor at the UNC School of Government. She argued the mug shot should be considered a “criminal investigative record” and law enforcement agencies have no obligation to disclose them to the public.
Bussian disagreed with Bluestein and believes mug shots are public record.
The provision could still be taken out of the budget when the House votes on it. But if it’s retained, it would take effect Dec. 1.
The House is now assembling its version of the budget. The competing plans likely will go into a conference committee to hammer out a final budget. Gov. Pat McCrory would be asked to sign the final measure into law.