By Laura C. Morel
LARGO - Mug shots of inmates at the Pinellas County Jail will no longer be posted on the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office website starting Monday.
Since 2005, the Sheriff's Office has allowed public access to mug shots, which are photographs of inmates who are booked into the jail.
But Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday that his office will stop posting the photos online because commercial websites continue to scrape mug shots from his office's "Who's In Jail" web page. Other websites then repost them, and some charge fees if people want their mug shots removed.
"The reposting of their booking photo isn't illegal," Gualtieri said, but added that charging a fee is "unconscionable, verging on blackmail and clearly taking advantage of someone's circumstances."
Last year, mugshots.com advertised removal packages ranging from $399 for removal of one arrest to up to $1,799 for five. But on Thursday, removal costs were not available on the site. Mugshots.com operators could not be reached for comment. Because websites may charge different fees, "a person may have to pay an exorbitant amount of money" to remove each post, the sheriff added.
People searching the "Who's in Jail" site will still be able to access information, such as an inmate's name, charge and date of birth, but photos won't be available online. However, public records requests will be honored, the Sheriff's Office said.
About 50,000 people are booked into the Pinellas County Jail every year. A Florida Sheriff's Association spokeswoman said Thursday that the organization had not heard of any other sheriff's agencies considering removing all booking photos.
Other sheriff's offices in Tampa Bay have not planned to follow suit, but Pasco sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll called the Pinellas change "an interesting development."
"We would just like to see how it works for the time being," he said, adding that arrest information could still be obtained by the commercial websites, even if the photos are not available online.
But Gualtieri said residents he spoke with whose arrest records had been picked up by the websites were mostly concerned about the photos. Gualtieri's decision is among several recent efforts to deter the websites from cashing in on people's arrests.
In June, _____, 44, was arrested by Largo police on a domestic battery charge and booked into the Pinellas County Jail. The next month, the charge was dropped. But _____'s mug shot remains online.
She is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against several mug shot websites, including mugshots.com and arrests.org, that was filed in November. Her attorneys are seeking class-action status.
Among them is Tampa lawyer Matthew Crist, who said Gualtieri's decision was "really good news."
"It will stop these websites from being able to acquire content, at least from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office," he said. People "won't face the same problems that Ms. _____ did."
A similar lawsuit was filed in Toledo, Ohio, which resulted in a settlement last year that included an agreement with two websites, BustedMugshots.com and MugshotsOnline.com, to stop charging fees for mug shot removals.