When Florida A&M University professor Barton Christner walks the halls he feels as if there’s a shadow looming over his head. Recently, his mugshot began circulating among students in the School of Journalism. Christner is among thousands of Floridians trying to remove a digital tether that clouds his reputation as a father, professional and instructor. A Florida law passed in 2017 sought to crack down on the mugshot publishing industry but it hasn’t worked as intended.
Christner was arrested several years ago in a Florida county. He was held for 24 hours but was never charged in his first-ever run-in with the law. Yet that arrest has followed him and and he says he has to constantly explain and justify himself.
“Let’s just say you’re a victim of most things, you can find a support group somewhere. You can sit around that support group and say this happened to me, that happened to me, we can hug and everyone gets along and we realize we all share the same problem. Do I wanna go meet five other people with mugshots at a Starbucks and talk about how difficult this is? What if that guy across the table really is a bad egg? He’s thinking the same about me,” says Christner.
He faced challenges when he applied for a job at FAMU when he had to be cleared by the school’s legal team before he could begin working. He was supposed to start in the Spring of 2019 but ended up starting his job in the Fall. “I was scheduled to teach several classes in January, my name was on the roster,” he says. But "all of a sudden" the school pumped the breaks on that. At issue: Barton's mugshot.
According to the latest data provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, over 700,000 thousand arrests were made in Florida in 2018 and for most of them, a mugshot is taken. North Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke are among the number of people who are digitally tagged forever, due to mugshots of their arrests posted online.
Tallahassee Attorney Don Pumphrey wrote a blog about the issue. He says "Mugshots can be embarrassing and humiliating, sometimes even costing you a job, because they imply that the individual portrayed is associated with some sort of criminal act even if you didn’t commit the crime or were eventually found not guilty."
Florida is among several states trying to stop websites for charging for the removal of mugshots. In 2017, the state Legislature passed a bill, SB 118, to allow citizens to sue such websites.
The bill states, “the person whose arrest booking photograph was published or otherwise disseminated in the publication or electronic medium may bring a civil action to enjoin the continued publication or dissemination of the photograph if the photograph is not removed within 10 calendar days after receipt of the written request for removal.”
It also included a fine of $1,000 a day for noncompliance after a 10-day grace period to remove the photo upon request. However, the law has been difficult to enforce due to sites being registered in the Caribbean or other countries that are out of U.S. jurisdiction.
Christner says he's spent thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to remove his photo. But each time it goes down it pops back up months, or even weeks, later on another site. He says the 2017 law was a good idea, but given the reality of how mughshot websites are set up, he questions the possibility of stopping them soon.
The sponsor of the law, Republican Rep. Scott Plakon, couldn’t be reached for comment.