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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The owner of a website that publishes inmate booking photos is suing a Utah sheriff for denying a public records request for more than a thousand mug shots.
The Salt Lake County Sheriff denied the records request in February, saying his office could refuse because it holds copyright control over the images.
Attorneys for Kyle Prall, who runs the website bustedmugshots.com, argue in documents filed last week in 3rd District Court that if the court doesn't overturn Sheriff Jim Winder's "wrong and selective denial," it would set a "dangerous precedent" beyond mug shots into broader rights of public access to government records.
In January, Winder stopped posting booking photos to his metro jail's online roster, citing websites such as Prall's that display the images and charge former inmates a removal fee. Some of the sites charge hundreds of dollars and then fail to follow through by removing image or identifying information.
The websites are using the records created by his office to hurt people and make money, he said.
"I believe that the practice of using these mug shots to belittle and abuse our citizens is immoral and repugnant," he said when discussing the websites in general during an interview Tuesday.
"A compassionate society does not utilize the scarlet letter," he said.
Former inmates say the websites make them pay twice for their crimes, and some have contacted Winder, sometimes mistakenly believing his office is cooperating with the websites and publications.
We think it's legally unfounded. Mug shots have been public records and have been routinely released for many, many years.
"This has a huge impact on these people's lives," he said. "It's hurting people."
Winder said after he took down the images from the sheriff's website, "people made kind of a mad dash to get them" and the office began receiving public records requests for batches of the mug shots, such as Prall's request.
Prall did not return further messages seeking comment.
According to information on bustedmugshots.com, the website will remove photos and information for free if a person can prove they were found not guilty or had the charges dismissed.
Otherwise, the website charges $98 to $178 to take down the information. The higher fee will buy a "rush" removal where the record is cleared within two business days instead of 20.
A statement on bustedmugshots.com says by publishing the photos and inmate information, such as details about the person's arrest, helps the public stay informed and safe.
Prall submitted a records request in late January seeking copies of mug shots for everyone arrested or booked into the Salt Lake County Jail this year from January 11 to January 27.
In February, the sheriff's office declined the request and said the 1,388 mug shots that fall in that time period were "protected materials to which access must be limited for purposes of securing or maintaining Salt Lake County's proprietary rights."
Prall appealed to the county council, which voted to uphold the denial, so now he's taking the issue to court.
"We think it's legally unfounded," said Prall's attorney David Reymann. "Mug shots have been public records and have been routinely released for many, many years."
"This is a government agency saying 'we own the public records and we can refuse to release these records to the public,'" he said.
Reymann argues in court documents that if a government agency argues it can deny access because it holds the copyright to those records, "virtually all government records would be off limits to the public," and the state public records law "would be meaningless."
Winder called that argument "ridiculous" and said that just because the government produces a record doesn't mean it can be used for any and all purposes.
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed and Gov. Gary Herbert signed a measure that aimed to prevent people from using jail booking photos for mug shot websites. The legislation bars county sheriffs from handing out a booking photograph unless the person requesting it signs a statement swearing they will not place the image in a publication or on a website that charges people to remove photos.
The law wasn't signed by the governor until April 1 and became effective on May 14.
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