SEBRING - If a person is arrested and then charges are dropped, they may expect the whole thing to be removed from the public eye.
But they may be surprised to find their jail mug shots showing up after an Internet search, weeks or even years later, on web sites maintained by private companies.
And if they want those photos removed, they may end up paying a fee.
Recently, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri became possibly the first sheriff in the United States to remove all mug shots from his office's web site because companies were getting them from public web sites, posting them on their own sites and then charging to remove them, according to a Tampa Tribute article.
"I think it is extortion," he told the Tribune. "I'm not going to see people treated that way."
The sheriff also said "a lot of these people have committed relatively minor crimes or made a bad decision. The reposting for their booking photo isn't illegal, but charging a fee to remove it is unconscionable, verging on blackmail and clearly taking advantage or someone's circumstances."
In Highlands County, when someone is released from jail, their mug shot is removed from the system. Up until last year they remained permanently on the Highlands County Jail web site.
Benton said she didn't feel it was right to have the mug shots up permanently. Some people have their charges dropped either because they are found not guilty in a trial or for some other reason, she reasoned.
But Highlands County has no plans to discontinue putting up all mug shots when a person is arrested, she said.
"We have no intentions at this time of changing the way we do business," Benton added.
Still, she said, she understands Gualtieri's concerns. "If you're not guilty why should you have your mug shot slammed all over the place?" she asked.
While the photos of inmates are not accessible online once they are released, anyone can come to the sheriff's office and request to see a mug shot or get a copy of an arrest report because both are public records. The Highlands County Clerk of Courts web site also provides information on criminal cases, she said.
Possibly, Benton said, the solution could be delaying releasing information as has been the case with accident reports.
The release of accident report were limited because of so-called ambulance chasers, she said.
State Rep. Carl Zimmerman, a Democrat from Pinellas County, last year proposed another way of dealing with the situation in the form of legislation that would have required web sites to remove a mug shot if charges were dropped or if the person was acquitted.
But the legislation failed.
These web sites have generated controversy all over the United States.
In Ohio, three residents filed lawsuits against numerous mug shot web sites and obtained a settlement in which these companies agreed to remove mug shots of people whose charges were dropped without charging them a fee, according to a United Press International article.
Lawsuits have been filed in other states, the article said.