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Prostitution arrests posted online

The Web publishing of prostitution-related arrests is causing debate among journalists and civil rights advocates about the practice of making public information globally available.

    A 30-year-old Minnesota man was arrested for allegedly soliciting a prostitute from his blue Ford pickup within the past 18 months. Now his name and picture are displayed on the Net, exposing his arrest not only to his neighbors, but also to people around the world.

    Responding to citizens who are "tired of prostitutes plying their trade on their sidewalks," the St. Paul (Minnesota) Police Department on Friday began posting online information about locals accused and charged with engaging in the sex trade.

    For law enforcement agencies, the Net provides a new venue to increase public awareness and deter crime through, among other things, humiliation. In addition, local newspapers increasingly publish daily stories online, including crime headlines.

    "This information has been available for a long time and the commercial news media makes use of it every day. But it requires coming to the station to do this," said Sylvia Burgos, public information coordinator for the St. Paul Police Department, which serves a community of more than 272,000 residents.

    Still, cyberspace also makes this local information instantly global, sparking some debate over accused and convicted criminals' privacy. Perhaps more significantly, the trend brings up old questions about how crime reports should be handled in order to minimize harm to those who haven't been proven guilty, while making public information truly accessible.

    From the FBI's Most Wanted List to the growing number of Web pages featuring the addresses of convicted sex offenders living in California and Michigan, for example, the Net is becoming a popular medium for broadcasting the identities of convicted or suspected criminals.

    But in the case of the St. Paul site, those listed have been arrested, not convicted.

    "The outcomes of the arrests will probably be displayed. I guess we will have to list the [acquittals and dropped charges] as well out of fairness," Burgos said.

    However, there are no immediate plans to post the conclusion of each arrest. "The information we have is about arrests, and that is what we can make available according to our area of authority," she added. "The outcomes are really in the area of the courts."

    Although newspapers frequently publish news of arrests and subsequent trials, on the Net anyone can become a publisher. This is fueling concern about whether law enforcement agencies, such as the St. Paul Police, will take care to inform online visitors about the outcome of the prostitution arrests. Even newspapers have been criticized for running huge headlines about arrests and convictions, and then giving news of acquittals less play.

    "[News organizations] have run the risk of hurting or harming somebody's reputation," said Steve Geimann, a member and former president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

    "The goal should always be to make public information available to the public," Geimann added. "But with sensitive information like arrest records, then there is an obligation on the part of the issuing agency to follow the criminal arrest to final the disposition of that case. The same thing goes for a news organization."

    In most cases, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune doesn't report misdemeanor arrests, such as prostitution.

    The online publication of arrest records and lists of convicted sex offenders also raises the question of whether some local public records need to be globally available. According to civil rights advocates, when it comes to criminal charges, plastering the Net with the accused person's photo and alleged act could hinder a future fair trial and due process. A related incident recently came up in Ventura, California, when an online newspaper was subpoenaed for email messages containing public reaction to a sensational murder trial highlighted on the site. (See related story)

    "These people [in St. Paul] haven't had the opportunity to go to trial and have their guilt or innocence determined," said David Sobel, legal counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "On the Net, the fact of an arrest will probably live on forever, while the results of such incidents probably won't be available."

    However, he said regulation in this area would likely infringe on free speech rights.

    "The issue of public record information being put online is probably the most difficult policy decision we will face. It presents choices between privacy rights and First Amendment rights," he added. "I'm not convinced that the [prostitution-related arrests] are situations in which we need to make the information global."

    Both Sobel and Geimann agree that although the St. Paul prostitution arrest records and the rap sheets of numerous sex offenders in other states are online, in most cases locals will still form the readership for such Web sites.

    Still, as such data becomes aggregated around the nation and potentially available from sex-crime mega-sites, the dangers of inaccurate or incomplete online records could become more vivid as employers and other entities research people's backgrounds on the Net.

    "There is a potential for real damage to a person's reputation when we're talking about arrest information," Sobel added. "There are certainly many cases of wrongful arrest out there."