In My Own Words

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

Think about these two scenarios:
A) Something makes you feel nervous about the person you’re dating or the person who offers you a terrific business opportunity. You decide to search for the person’s name online and discover that someone by that name has been arrested for several crimes. Is it the person you know? A quick look at the mugshots from the arrests confirms whether or not this is true.
B) You’ve been arrested, but the charges have been dropped, or you’ve been found innocent at a trial or served your time and are now a law-abiding citizen. However, you discover that a website has your photo and arrest record listed on it, but nothing about what happened after the arrest. You’re about to apply for a new job and worry that the information might hurt your chances. The site says it will remove the photo and other information – for a fee.
These two scenarios are why I’m still debating my reaction to New York state’s new “mugshot ban” law. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the law, it prevents law enforcement from publicly releasing mugshots of people who are arrested. If you read the newspaper, watch the news on TV or visit news websites, you’ll be used to seeing photos shown with the news of an arrest. That photo is usually taken by police when someone is booked and is called a mugshot.
It’s easy to see both sides of the issue. First, the public has a right to know about arrests and the law may ban even the release of names and charges for crimes. Withholding this information could lead to illegal arrests or charges of secret police actions. After all, if we don’t know who has been arrested, how can we be certain that the arrest is not part of a personal vendetta? Friends and family might not have a clue that a person is sitting in jail and be unable to help. Plus, our democracy only works when government and police actions are open and clear to the public.
On the other hand, what these websites – the ones publishing mugshots and arrest information – are doing is clearly extortion. They are not offering information for the public good, but looking to make a quick buck off of someone’s misfortune. If they believed their information was important and a true public service, they would not accept any amount of money to delete it.
This controversy is just another example of how the Internet has changed our lives – for good and for bad. I’m not whining about these changes because many of them have been positive. But the web also prevents what could have been a simple solution to this problem in the past: arrest the people doing the extortion. That’s more difficult now because a website is not a physical place the police visit and they may even be unable to tell where the person running the site is located. With bitcoin and other electronic payment options, it’s also not always possible to follow the money trail and learn who is responsible that way.
I do think that something needs to be done about these sites, but to forbid the release of police information is not the way to go. Surely there is a compromise that allows the press to offer information to the public and a way to take these sites down. It will take someone with more computer experience than I have to figure out how to do this, but I do think it can – and needs to – be done.