Defendants in the News: Burying Negative Search Engine Results for People Charged with Crimes

When I have a client charged with a crime I usually can predict whether local news sources will pick up the story. Some cases involve gruesome allegations (any homicide); some may involve factual details that are bizarre (neighbor attacking neighbor with unusual weaponry); and other cases are of a nature that that are being heavily reported in the news (presently that would be any case involving fentanyl or campus sexual assault). Particularly in cases where my client is acquitted or the charges are dismissed, they often ask me how to remove online news articles that documents their arrest and the charges issued against them. Local news sources gain a lot of eyeballs by focusing on local crime – some news outlets even park a reporter in the arraignment courtroom every day to catch the accused’s humiliation with a short recitation of charges and a horrible photo. Rarely do these sources ever report the final outcome of the case and they will certainly not remove the story from their archives. Having these articles on-line can be extremely damaging to a client’s reputation, employment prospects and overall mental health. People (including myself) regularly conduct google searches when we meet or hear about someone new and news articles – even from small local papers – tend to get top billing in the search results since the news sites get a lot of on-line traffic.

Once upon a time I represented a client named “G.” G was an extremely accomplished professional who worked for a multi-national company and regularly interacted with an enormous number of colleagues and clients in his professional capacity. But G had a Google problem.

I have changed the details of G’s situation to make it impossible to identify who he is. His name doesn’t even start with the letter “G.”

When G was 22 years old, long before I ever met him, he was leaving a bar with a few friends and some local police officers started giving them a hard time for being too loud and having too much fun. One officer threw one of G’s friends up against a wall and when G verbally protested, he was pepper-sprayed in the face. The police then had to justify their excessive force and charged G with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Charges involving a group of young people causing a disturbance late at night would not normally make the press, but G was working for a local politician at the time and the local paper decided to make a fuss about it. Ultimately the charges were appropriately dismissed, but when you google G’s name, the first search result is an article with the not-so-salacious headline “City employee arrested outside local bar.” Without even clicking on the link one can see a summary of the article that says that G pleaded not guilty to being disorderly and resisting arrest during his arraignment. Like most news articles describing new charges, the article summarizes the content of the police report as though it contains undisputed facts and lists G’s next day in court. The fact that the charges were dismissed has never been added to that article nor is there a follow-up article by that news force. Dismissals aren’t interesting – charges are.

The presence of this article as the first search result on Google causes G immense despair. He even called the on-line editor for the paper and not surprisingly was told that they would not remove the article. He was promised that the article would be edited to say that the charges have been dismissed but that has never been done. Even with such information included, it does not remove the humiliation that G experiences knowing that the article is so early found and the damage to her reputation.

The short answer to the question of how to remove a humiliating article about you on-line is that you can’t. Unless the person or company that posted the article will agree to remove it, you are stuck with it. In G’s case, the local paper accurately reported his charges, employment, and the basis for the charges so we are not in tortious defamation territory. What can be done to help G is to create new web content about the person that is positive and then work with a company that does search engine optimization (SEO) to get the positive material to rank higher than the article. If the article is buried on page 3 of a Google search, it is unlikely that many people will see it. I referred G to a company that can help him with this endeavor. The creation of new content is pretty simple but the search engine optimization is expensive when done right.