CHICAGO (CN) - The same people at mugshots.com are also behind unpublisharrest.com, forcing former arrestees to pay up if they want any hope of rejoining society, a class claims in court.
Two men paroled in Illinois, Peter Gabiola and Antonio Hammond, filed the complaint Wednesday in Cook County Circuit Court taking aim at a constellation of businesses they say are "unilaterally punishing people for years - or longer - after an arrest."
Though the Illinois Department of Corrections website is legally required to remove the information of inmates who are paroled after completing their sentences, Gabiola and Hammond say the defendants manage to scrape such information off the website and then cobble it together for incriminating posts complete with photos.
This system is designed to "coerce arrestees to pay for the removal or correction of that information," according to the complaint.
Former arrestees can allegedly pay a fee to a sister website of mugshots.com, in the range of $398 to $2,000, to have their record unpublished, yet guarantees are lacking.
"People desperate to get a job, and unable to do so because of web search results defendants create, can pay defendants hundreds or thousands of dollars for only partial relief," the complaint states.
Mugshots.com posts indicate that the arrestees are still charged, incarcerated or on parole, after they are released or found not guilty, and the site "takes little or no action to correct false or inaccurate information," according to the complaint.
Former arrestees say mugshots.com and its sister websites, UnpublishArrest.com and UnpublishingPartners.com, "profit by creating obstacles to the normal lives of everyday people and to the rehabilitation of ex-arrestees."
Mugshots.com also uses "analytics and search optimization to ensure that their site is among the first results found" when a name is entered into a search engine like Google, the parolees say.
Stuart Clarke, an attorney for the plaintiffs at Berton N. Ring PC in Chicago, called it "odious" that these defendants are "trying to take money from people who are down on their luck."
Their business model is simply "a way to make money off the backs of people who don't have that money," Clarke added.
Though mugshots.com maintains that it is not affiliated with the other two sites, the complaint says all three are owned, operated and staffed by the same people.
An operator for the toll-free number at unpublisharrest.com, the same number found on mugshots.com, told Courthouse News that the two were not the same company.
According to the complaint, the companies behind the websites use IP-masking technology and sham company names to "create the appearance of separation."
Mugshots.com allegedly says Gabiola is still on parole, though Gabiola exited parole in July 2012.
Gabiola says he was let go from his job at a sales and marketing company on the first day after his mug shot and incorrect arrest information was found on the website. He was passed up for at least two other jobs after that.
When he called Unpublisharrest.com, an operator told Gabiola it would cost $15,000 to remove everything about him from Mugshots.com, with no guarantee that it would all be gone, according to the complaint.
Mugshots.com meanwhile has five pages about Hammond, the other named plaintiffs, who says he cannot find work and thus cannot afford the $1,000 per page he was told it would cost to remove his information.
Clarke says his firm believes the "entire purpose of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation," and websites like these are "essentially a roadblock to that."
The complaint counts 457,000 Illinois residents with entries on Mugshots.com. Clarke says he "believe this group of websites is the largest player in the industry."
As part of a settlement agreement in Ohio in January 2014, the company that runs the similar websites BustedMugshots.com and MugshotsOnline.com had to stop charging to remove photos from their sites. It also had to pay $7,500 to those that sued and remove their pictures from the sites.
Passage of the Mugshots Act three years ago in Illinois made it unlawful for anyone who publishes criminal record information to solicit payment to remove or correct the information.
The class is suing for violations of the Illinois Mugshots Act, the Illinois Right of Publicity Act, the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and consumer fraud.
Jon Smith, a representative of Mugshots.com, said in response to a request sent through its website that the lawsuit was dismissed last week.
Clarke noted that the Cook County lawsuit is a refiling of a federal complaint.