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Group challenges probation photos' use on Internet
By JAMIE MALERNEE
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2000
A Hernando County organization that helps convicts re-enter society is suing the Department of Corrections, claiming the agency is violating the privacy of probationers by posting their photographs online.
James Noble, president of Freedom For Life in Spring Hill, said Friday that the non-profit group has received complaints from several Hernando County residents in supervised release programs.
Several say they have lost jobs after employers discovered their photographs on the department's Web site.
Noble said the group is seeking class-action status on behalf of hundreds of thousands of probationers in Florida.
'We've been hearing a tremendous outcry," Noble said. 'It's the Scarlet Letter effect. If these people become unemployed, what do you think happens?"
Noble declined to identify the complainants. The lawsuit says they fear 'retaliatory punishment" if they resist being photographed.
Since January, the Department of Corrections has posted the photographs, criminal histories and home addresses of about 200,000 people who are in prison or on probation. Florida is the first state to do this.
The lawsuit, which names Corrections Secretary Michael Moore, was filed Thursday in Hernando County Circuit Court. It says Moore knew he did not have authority to post the photographs but 'outlined a policy of deceit and fraud to trick offenders into cooperation."
Corrections officials say the information and photographs are public record and may be posted. They declined further comment.
David Green, executive director of the First Amendment Project, said that simply because the pictures are more accessible online does not mean they violate a person's privacy.
'If it's public information anyway, the fact that it's all in a database is of no legal consequence," said Green, whose California-based group specializes in public access issues. 'When someone enters into the corrections system, they are necessarily going to lose some privacy."
But Noble said that the Web site -- http://www.dc.state.fl.us -- crosses the line between making public information available and maliciously humiliating offenders. He also said that state law specifically allows corrections officials to post the photographs of sex offenders, but does not make detailed reference to other convicts.
'When is enough, enough?" Noble asked. 'They're putting them on the same level as sex offenders. How can you take a person who may just have paid a fine and done some jail time and label them the same as these people who have committed this heinous crime?"
Freedom for Life is asking a judge to order Moore to remove all non-sex-offender photographs and information posted online, and to forbid such postings in the future. A hearing is set for Wednesday. If the request is denied in Hernando, it has another shot in Hillsborough County.
A Tampa woman filed a similar lawsuit against the department Tuesday, also claiming violation of privacy. She said she was told that refusing to be photographed for the online database would result in a probation violation.
The woman, Lauren G. Waldon, 35, is serving two years' probation after pleading no contest to charges of grand theft and credit card fraud. She also wants her lawsuit to be a class-action case.
Waldon's lawyer, Steven Loewenthal, said Friday he is concerned about the offender database not only because it violates his client's privacy, but because he has found listings that contained incorrect or incomplete information.
He also is concerned that all persons are required to wear blue prison smocks for their pictures. That is misleading, he said, especially for Waldon because she never went to prison for her offense.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Simms issued an order Wednesday prohibiting officials from filing a probation violation against Waldon simply because she refused to have her photograph taken. He also criticized the blue smock policy.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.