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Lawsuit filed over mug shot websites

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For many former West Virginia jail inmates, their mug shots are a visual reminder of some of the worst moments in their lives.

One Clarksburg man has capitalized on this by creating a website compiling booking photos from every jail and prison in the state. The man then charges a steep fee to get those mug shots scrubbed from cyberspace.

Ohio lawyer Scott A. Ciolek said this practice "amounts to nothing short of fraud" and extortion. He has sued five similar websites to prove his point.

The website registered in Clarksburg, WVjails.info, is next on his list, he said.

Jason Watson of Clarksburg owns WVJails.info and its main company, US Support Services LLC, according to the West Virginia Secretary of State's Office.

The site is licensed as an "information and data processing server." That server is registered online to a "Mr. Watson."

Watson has created about 30 similar mug shot websites in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, according to the server's information.

Watson also created a separate server, Arre.st, in which mug shots from West Virginia and the other 30 websites are double posted.

He charges $51.80 for West Virginians to remove a photo from Wvjails.info.

On Oct. 29, the Better Business Bureau launched an investigation into Watson and his business practices after receiving four complaints in the past three years. Investigators couldn't follow up because a working phone number for Watson could not be found.

However investigators discovered that Watson "had additional websites and seems to have multiples of the same information on different websites causing some individuals to have to pay to have their information removed from several websites."

The bureau concluded that Watson has a First Amendment right to operate his business but investigators felt "the company is using high pressure and unethical business practice to intimidate individuals."

Those who complained said they paid to have their mug shots removed only to find the photos moved onto another website.

Ciolek asks that anyone with a mug shot on WVjails.info or anyone who's paid to have his or her photo removed from that site to join him.

In Ohio, he filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 259,000 people who've been placed on mug shot websites there. He's seeking $10,000 in damages per photo posting.

West Virginia, like Ohio, has similar laws when it comes to publicity rights.

"Every person in West Virginia has a right to control the commercial exploitation of their images and their names," he said.

Mug shots are public record and frequently are used by news organizations.

"That's fine, because that's protected by the First Amendment right to [a free] press," he said. "In fact, if these mug shot websites simply posted the pictures of the people with no commercial exploitation, then that would be legal."

The problem is that these mug shot websites use people's images in promotional ads and for financial gain, he said.

"It's just an unacceptable use of someone's image and a personal infringement on publicity rights," he said. "That's what we are suing about."

It would be difficult for a lawyer to prove damages from copyright infringement in court. It's not difficult, however, to prove damages related to a person's name and their image, Ciolek said.

Ali Dabiri, database administrator for the state Office of Technology, said Watson maintains his websites by downloading mug shots using a "bot." These programs are capable of downloading thousands of images in a matter of seconds when the photos are entered into the state Regional Jail database.

In April, Dabiri tried to change some of the database settings to prevent Watson's programs from downloading, but it had little impact. Watson's website went offline for about a day and then came back unaffected by the changes, Dabiri said.

Mug shots here in the state are copyrighted by the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority and the West Virginia Division of Corrections.

A Gazette-Mail reporter messaged WVJail's Twitter account in April to ask about its use of the mug shots.

"We do not need permission to publish public record. This is a First Amendment right," someone there replied.

Anyone who wants to report a mug shot problem can visit Ciolek's website.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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