“Busted Paper” and other mugshot magazines: Why they are—and will likely remain—legal


The faces stare up at you from the folded tabloid newspaper on sale at the your nearest convenience store: hundreds of photos of people at what might be the worst moment of their lives, available to anyone with a dollar. Busted Paper, on sale in the Twin Cities for the last four years, is just a small part of a new and rapidly growing industry dedicated to publishing booking photos, commonly called mugshots, in tabloids and online.

The Minnesota edition, published twice monthly, includes 17 pages of mugshots from Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, and Dakota counties.

Scattered among the local photos are crime-related articles (“Florida Man Stabs Wife Over a Hamburger”) and mugshots designated for special attention in features like “Hottest Chicks” and “Muggin’ Maniacs.” There is even a recipe of the week. While a full page is devoted to the advantages of advertising in Busted, most editions contain no advertising. “We’re in a lull,” says Ryan Chief, the tabloid’s co-owner and advertising manager.

Chief says that the Minnesota edition sells 12,000 copies every two weeks and says that his readers appreciate the paper. Nationally, he claims 120,000 readers each week for Busted editions in 20 states. Chief said that the publication can be a public service. “Maybe you own a taxi service and you want to see if anyone is in there, or principal of a school district to see if any of your teachers are there,” he says.

Chief admits, though, that there is more entertainment value than public service in publishing mugshots. “We strike a chord with our readers. If you’re going down a highway and see a police officer handcuffing someone, you slow down and look. The most popular TV show is Cops,” he said. “We’re Cops in print.” (In fact, though the documentary series Cops has been a successful program for 23 years, the top-rated show on TV is currently NCIS—a fictional show that is also about cops.)

“My number one customer is a woman 44-55 years old and married. Busted is gossipy and we’ve got the colorful news that you don’t seen in the Star Tribune,” he said.

It’s cheap and easy

Getting the names and faces for these publications is easy and cheap. Laws differ from state to state, but in most states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, mugshots are considered public information, part of the arrest record. (Information held by the Federal Government has different rules.) For most individuals wanting copies of mugshots, a trip to the county courthouse is necessary. Once there, most counties require the name and birthdate of the arrested person and then charge a small processing fee. In some jurisdictions, to get access to a large number of mugshots the way Busted Paper does, all you need to do is ask for all the mugshots on a particular date or a range of dates and, as public information, it’s free.

Neither Busted Paper nor any of the other similar publications around the country publish retractions when someone is found innocent or if the charges are dismissed—but a mugshot is only a record of arrest, not of conviction, and the paper never implies otherwise.

Busted publishes photos only once (per arrest) and when the paper has been read and tossed away, the photos are no longer available. A disclaimer in Busted says, “We never have and never will accept payment to keep your picture out of the paper,” but the same isn’t true online. That’s a different universe. Keeping the photo available forever and accepting payment is the whole point.

Online: Cash for unpublication

Plug in a name or randomly peruse the photos on many mugshot websites and you can find companies that guarantee to get your booking photo removed from the site or even from the Internet. One, Mugshots.com features a toll-free phone number and a link to unpublisharrest.com, a enterprise that promises to remove from one to four arrests from Mugshot’s site and from all major search engines for a cost of $399 to $1,498. “If you have more than four arrests,” the site advises, “please call us to discuss your special needs.”

The service is not available for everyone, but if a case has been dismissed, the charge is non-violent or a misdemeanor, or if it falls under a score of other exceptions, you can pay the fee and clear your name online. If not, your mugshot could circulate the Internet indefinitely.

Despite this, some jurisdictions across the country which currently do not release mugshots to the public are considering changing policies. In January, Mary Cheh, a D.C. council member, who believes that releasing mugshots is a public safety issue, introduced a bill requiring police there to distribute mugshots to anyone who asks for them. If it passes, the District may join much of the country in facing some tricky legal and ethical questions involving privacy, the First Amendment, transparency in government and the criminal justice system. In New Jersey, there’s talk about releasing mugshots to the public as well.

Mugshots.com includes on its website more than 11,000 words justifying why what they do is moral and legitimate, including strong legal and social arguments about legitimate public interest, open government, even tough love. A lot of people in law and the media agree.

“Many in the criminal justice system are appalled by public access to mugshots in papers and online,” said Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota. 

“Their reaction is to say that it’s an invasion of privacy, there are unintended consequences, that it inflames the public. A lot of the members of the public are appalled, too. People forget that transparency in the criminal justice system is for the protection of the arrested. Secrecy imperils those in custody,” she says. “Public information should be accessible and there should always be a presumption of openness.”

The attitude is similar at the Minnesota ACLU, where executive Director Chuck Samuelson agreed that openness in the criminal justice system is vital for a free society.

“One of the things we had our revolution about in 1776 was secret police work by the government. That’s why we have the Fourth Amendment. Arrests must be public. If they are public, there must be a record of it and the government has to bring you into open court.”

“That’s the good side,” he said. “You don’t want situation like in Argentina. But the bad news is if it’s all public, so is your mugshot.”

The ACLU objects to websites that broadcast all mugshots, said Samuelson. “If a paper wanted to send a reporter to pick up a few copies, pay a fee and the print them, they have to do a lot of work. But, here, all you need is an 18-year old with a computer. Public information is vital, but broadcasting it this way is not.”

For those whose mugshots end up as public entertainment, the mere perception of guilt can damage lives, suggests Bob Sorensen, managing attorney at the Hennepin County Public Defenders Office. Sorensen says that his clients’ lives have been permanently altered after having their booking photos posted on these websites. “This is very disturbing to a lot of people and the consequences for people whose mugshots are included are much wider than most people think,” he said.

Yet, despite some objections, lawsuits to block mugshots from publication using libel, defamation or privacy reasons have, at least so far, have been largely unsuccessful. 

Lawyers fight back

Ohio lawyer Scott Ciolek is taking on the mugshot industry from a new angle, claiming that the websites that charge for removal are violating his state’s publicity law. His strategy, he says, is to remove the profit incentive through a class action suit that claims people have a copyright on their own persona. “They’re violating a right-of-publicity getting commercial gain without consent,” he says.  “It’s like using a celebrity image on a t-shirt without permission.”

Even if he’s successful, print publications like Busted Paper will be safe. “A tabloid can print these things with the same exceptions that a newspaper has. If they put something in a false light, they print a detraction,” Ciolek said. “A mugshot printed in a tabloid is not defamation, because they are accurately reporting only that these people were arrested.”

Ciolek says he hopes his tactic will be picked up by lawyers in other states. “This might work in Minnesota,” he said.

Another solution would be changing state law to exempt mugshots from public arrest records, to come in line with laws in 10 other states. So far, no such law has been proposed at the Capitol this session.

Some people though, have not been caught up in the controversy. Eric, who asked that his last name not be used, found his own mugshot in the March edition of Busted Paper after being arrested on February 15 in Anoka County. “A coworker brought it in and we were looking at the paper and he pointed to my photo,” he said. “And I said, ‘Hey, I know that guy.’”

“People at work gave me a little bit of a hard time,” he said, “but I was found guilty of disorderly conduct and got sentenced to anger counseling. I’ve just started that. It’s going to work out good.”

25 thoughts on ““Busted Paper” and other mugshot magazines: Why they are—and will likely remain—legal

  1. There should be laws passed to keep this information confidential until there is a conviction. People shouldn’t be shamed until they have been proven guilty. The police aren’t always correct in arresting someone. Sometimes an arrest can solely be based on what mood a police officer was in at the time. Honestly, if the justice system supports one being innocent until proven guilty, the information should be kept confidential until proven guilty.

  2. There is a difference between being arrested and being convicted. Arrest histories are available to every credit agency and every insurance company who discriminate against arrestees is archaic is s especially sensitive given the outrageous disregard for our constitution by some of the high profile police agencies. Do you want to have your car insurance cancelled, or your credit rating bottomed out because some cop didnt like your looks and arrested you, took you to jail and the case was thrown out? You did nothing wrong and despite of the this fact that, because you were arrested you now cant buy a new house or your insurance company cancelled you. Just try to explain to them that your innocent of any wrong doing. On the other hand, an arrest or just plain being a crook should be in the public’s interest to know about. No? Check this out. http://codeforeblog.com/?page_id=2813

  3. The WORST DAM PAPER EVER! I wouldn’t have one if they were free and you could sell them later for a thousand dollars! People are innocent until proven guilty. They never make any effort to retract accusations. I had a dear friend that was in this f____ng paper. It destroyed her. She committed succide shortly after. So…. I hope only the worst for you if you’re associated with this in anyway.
    Find an honest decent way to make a living. I tear all of them up, if I get my hands on them! What do you people that publish these have in your closet? Adultrey? Lyes? Cheating? Lay your life out there for us to see!
    I agree 100% with Jerry Summers on this issue! May you all rot in hell!

  4. I truly find the paper very entertaining and oddly enough I’ve been in more than I really ever wanted to be. Along with a ton of other folks I know very close some even family LMFAO KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK ON THE TRUTH OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND IT’S PUBLIC RECORD ALL YOU HATERS

  5. There should be laws passed to keep this information confidential until there is a conviction. People shouldn’t be shamed until they have been proven guilty. The police aren’t always correct in arresting someone. Sometimes an arrest can solely be based on what mood a police officer was in at the time. Honestly, if the justice system supports one being innocent until proven guilty, the information should be kept confidential until proven guilty.

  6. They are not concerned with people’s guilt or innocence, but only with lining their pockets. If the charges were dropped and the person has no convictions, the mug shot should be removed immediately without a fee, but that’s not the case . 20 year old mug shots of people who were acquitted remain and “internet reputation specialists” offer to remove it for a fee.

  7. One would think that seeing as how you’re SUPPOSED TO BE “innocent until proven guilty” there should be another paper dedicated to CLEARING people who are found innocent or better yet CHARGES DROPPED bc fake cops put trumped up charges that get dropped… it happens more than you think… god bless America huh

  8. It’s terrible that newspaper websites like bustednewspaper,com are capitalizing off of posting individuals mugshots. These websites have the nerve to purposely retrieve someone’s mugshot and post to humiliate the individual and then want the individual to pay them hundreds of dollars to have the mugshot removed. Its apparent that the mugshots are worth hundreds of dollars to these scam mugshot websites; but we as consumers have got to stick together and not give in to these extortionists. If someones mugshot appears on the internet, just let it be. Do not pay these extortionists one penny to have your mugshot removed. This will surely put them out of business .

  9. See this is the problem… corporations and governments utilize free speech [under the guise of] to destroy peoples reputations with trashy money grab sites like busted newspaper. It’s insane that charges that were considered dismissals can even be indexed on google and other search engines and completely destroy someones reputation – especially in states that don’t really expunge things easily or when people can’t afford to get them expunged. I recently had a background check done… there was never anything on google about my charges – suddenly because a court extraction occurred… busted newspaper somehow got ahold of it and now its at the top of the search results lol…. these charges (all but 1) were dismissed… all occurred when i was 18 (i’m 27 now)…. it is insanity… now i’m forced to sign up for a bunch of BS social media and force everything to be public in order to try to mitigate the searches. SAD

  10. i hate this. it’s never ok to publicly shame someone. my father called the police on my mother for false allegations, and her mugshots are still on the internet when her name is searched. not ok. ever.

  11. Im looking for my face and if theres been any SLADDERING in my photo that is not true because if so I will pursur Civil Charges against this paper for ant kind of damages.

  12. This publication needs to be stopped. As you say there’s a difference between arrested and convicted. I was arrested for a DUI drug alcohol and accident. my blood alcohol level was way below legal limits my psych medications were as prescribed (and here is where the district attorney thought he could convict me) I was diagnosed bipolar 20 years ago I have been on medications ever since. They tried to say I was under the influence and therefore a public threat. I am in the process of suing Oconee county Georgia, but in the interim I have now been unemployed for 1 year as 5 perspective employers refuse to hire me because of my publication in bad and busted.

    I am a rallying Mental Health alliance and those individuals who have been diagnosed with mental illness. Once we win this suit against Oconee county Georgia we will be going after bad and busted.

    I hope you will join me

  13. It is true that most everyone has spent a dollar on one of these publications, some add little things to make them humours, most have gotten entertainment from them and all the while morally I don’t feel they should be publicized at the expense of someone who is innocent. Unfortunately, many say that once the papers publish these mugshots/arrest and if the person is found not guilty then the paper should have a second publication or paper for those they posted in the arrest paper to a Not Guilty paper to retract the first….this isn’t ever gonna happen. One, the company is making a killing off this one paper and spending the money to post those that were arrested yet proven innocent later is a waste of money bc no one is going to buy the paper “RETRACTOR OF THE BUSTED” bc we as humans have no interest in that sort of entertainment. There would be nothing to grab the readers attention. They would possibly design the paper with a list of names (minis the original mugshot bc the editor stated the mugshots are destroyed once they are published) with the original charges at time of their arrest and then a date of when they were found NOT GUILTY. Now what would or might I say who would enjoy that? Reading a ton of names and dates of ppl you may or may not know. It’s all about the money and nothing more, nothing less. As to those who purchase these papers…it’s all about the entertainment, just being nosy or checking out your own profile, nothing more, nothing less.

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