Criminal defendants in New York fortunate enough to win acquittals or have the charges against them dismissed often face an additional unanticipated but thorny problem: their internet reputations have been destroyed. A number of websites such as the New York Post, the Villager, Downtown Express, and others maintain “police blotters” columns, in which they post information about recent interesting arrests, including the names of the accused. Unfortunately, the authors of those websites do not usually follow-up to see the results of these arrests, and as a result, the entries remain permanently. The practical effect is that Google searches of people that have been arrested – including even those individuals who have been ultimately exonerated – nevertheless yield search results that make those people appear to be criminals. This can be devastating for professionals seeking employment, as more and more employers are performing online search engine research about their potential candidates. To be sure, an employer that finds a candidate’s name on a police blotter on the first page of the Google search results is probably not going to hire that candidate.
So what can be done to help individuals that have been exonerated that want to erase this negative information about themselves on the internet? Unfortunately, the real answer is that there is no sure-fire way to succeed in erasing these “police blotter” articles. The underlying problem is that there is usually nothing defamatory about these articles – after all, it is usually TRUE that the person was ARRESTED, and the articles do not usually say much more than that. Thus, the threat of litigation against the author of the website is usually an empty threat, as the article is protected by the First Amendment and is not libelous. Of course, there are many exceptions to this broad rule, and in those cases, civil litigation may simply be necessary to force the author to change or remove his or her story.
Many companies offer to “repair” or “defend” internet reputations for a fee, but one should realize that what those companies are typically doing is simply creating new online entries for their clients about their clients in the hopes that these new websites will come up on the first page of a Google search of their client’s name, and thereby “push” the police blotter results to the second or third page of Google results. In short, the “internet reputation” companies do not actually “remove” negative online press for their clients, they just try to bury it or push it back by cramming the internet full of “junk sites” that will contain entries with their client’s name(s) on the first page of search engine results.
We have had some success in simply finding the authors of the articles and appealing to their better natures to persuade them to take down the problematic articles. We have presented the authors with documentary proof that the charges were dismissed and have explained to them just how the articles are impacting our clients’ lives, and generally speaking, those authors have voluntarily adjusted or removed their articles. The real challenges to this approach are 1) finding and contacting the appropriate webmasters, 2) being sufficiently charming to persuade them to change their sites, and 3) remaining persistent until the job is complete.
If you or a loved one have had wrongful charges against you dismissed and are now suffering the consequences of negative online articles, you should strongly consider contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you attack and solve the problem.