Weighing access and fairness, Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office limits online jail records

Tampa Bay Times by Tony Marrero

November 6, 2018

TAMPA — Until last week, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office online booking log served as a historical record of arrests and mug shots dating back more than two decades.

From a murder suspect later judged guilty to a college student whose misdemeanor pot charge was dropped, arrest information and photos of everyone booked into the county jail since the mid 1990s have been accessible with the stroke of a few keys.

That changed Monday when the agency amended its policy so that online booking information will be available only for 90 days after an inmate leaves the jail.

Limiting the time the information is available online is “based on fairness,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said.

“I was concerned about the everlasting booking photos and the discriminatory implications that come along with it,” Chronister said.

Experts say the change highlights the ongoing tension between two priorities: providing easy access to public records and protecting information that can linger on the internet for years.

“I think one of the things that is starting to bother sheriffs across the country is the notion that people are making money off of public records that are being commodified and monetized,” said Sarah Lageson, a sociologist and assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark School of Criminal Justice who studies the growth of online crime data.

“The public records laws are supposed to work in the public interest, not as an online shaming machine.”

But throttling back online access to arrest records is a move in the wrong direction, said Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. Most requests for this information come from private citizens and business interests, followed by the news media, Petersen said.

Online jail records are an important resource for people seeking background information.

“You’re hiring, you’re firing, you want to check on your daughter’s new boyfriend or who’s picking up your children from school,” Petersen said.

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