Police mug shots become fodder for ‘shame rag’ tabloids

DALLAS — A petty criminal’s police mug shot usually doesn’t see the light of day.

But a cottage industry of tabloids and websites has sprung up that harvest the often ugly mugs from jail archives across the country, making it much more likely that someone’s least-finest hour may be online or in print to provide weeks or years of embarrassment.

“People either love it or hate it,” said Ryan Chief, who sells 100,000 tabloids filled with mug shots in 19 states every week.

Police book-in photos have long been public record. The outfits that print them enjoy the constitutional protections of freedom of the press.

But the outrage some people feel over having their arrest blasted to the world has led to everything from grousing to lawsuits. Few survive because of First Amendment protections.

What really riles people is that some sites require payment to remove a picture from a website.

“If you’re asking for money to take it down, it shows that you’re not acting in a public interest or altruistic mindset,” said a Dallas doctor whose photo from a March drunken driving arrest is on BustedMugshots.com, which also publishes a newspaper locally.

The site charges $68 to remove a picture, unless the person can prove that they have been acquitted, or were underage when arrested. “Obviously $68 is not an excessive amount of money, but I don’t want to support their site in any way,” the doctor said.

Attempts to reach Citizens Information Associates, which owns the site and paper, were not successful.

“People want to know who has been in jail and why,” an editor’s note in a recent edition said. “Our Constitution keeps the government accountable to the people and Citizens Information Associates fights to keep the public information public.”

Most “shame rags,” as they’re sometimes called, acknowledge they are entertainment. Some see themselves as providing a public service, such as helping cops solve crimes.

Chief, publisher of a competing paper, Busted, which was called Charged in North Texas until he changed it to Mugshot Junkie last month, has no online archive. He said he does not agree with taking money to remove pictures from the Internet.

“Whatever integrity my trashy tabloid paper may be hanging on to, at least I don’t charge people to stay out of the paper,” he said.

Chief said he started his first mug-shot tabloid four years ago in Florida, which is known for its open public record laws.

The Dallas doctor said all mug-shot publications are nothing more than lurid voyeurism that unfairly shame people.

“Everybody makes bad decisions in their life,” she said. “Most of them are private and you learn from them and move forward without having them broadcast publicly.”

She said she was arrested in March after she had a few drinks at a friend’s dinner party. She said she was driving home — and texting — when she hit a curb. That got the attention of a police officer, who pulled her over and arrested her.

The papers contain more than mug-shots. Many feature real police “most wanted” listings with information on how to turn in bad guys. Far more of the content is low brow even for a junior high boy’s locker room.

A recent copy of BustedMugshots newspaper features “Busted Beauties” and “Handsome Hooligans.” Mostly, it’s people who don’t look like they’ve slept in a box.

Another feature takes a fairly cogent stab at politics. An item decrying the tactics of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, the anti-gay rabble-rousers who protest at military funerals, came under the headline “Stupid Is As Stupid Does.”

“We sensationalize,” Chief said, “but everything we publish is accurate.”

Chief admits that he himself has felt the pinch of handcuffs. When he was in his 20s, he was caught with a marijuana pipe and driving under the influence. He is unequivocal as to how he would have reacted to seeing his face in a mug-shot newspaper.

“Ticked off, for sure,” he said. “At the same time, I probably would have bought five or 10 copies.”

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