Bucks County taxpayers are on the hook for a $67 million judgement awarded following a class-action lawsuit.
On Tuesday at U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, a jury found that Bucks County and the county correctional facility wrongfully violated the Criminal History Records Information Act, commonly called CHRIA.
The $68 million in punitive damages awarded on Tuesday is much smaller than the $670 million in damages that could have been awarded. The jury awarded $1,000 for each inmate who had their information posted by the county, but the exact number is still being determined.
The class-action lawsuit stemmed from an initial complaint by Daryoush Taha, 49, of New Jersey.
The five-day jury trial before U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone was to determine the intent of the violation of CHRIA, which the judge had already determined was violated.
Roughly 66,799 individuals who were incarcerated by the county were included by the database and part of the class impacted by the inmate lookup database that included color booking photographs from the shoulders up, sex, date of birth, height, weight, race, hair color, eye color, citizenship, date of his commission to the facility, date of his release from the facility, case number for the offense charged, and charges, according to to paperwork filed in federal court.
According to the lawsuit, Bucks County violated CHRIA by posting Taha’s mugshot and information about his case on a searchable database that previously was housed on the Bucks County Department Of Corrections website. The “Inmate Lookup Tool” database, which was often used by the media in addition to the public, showed records of those booked at the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown Township.
Taha was arrested by Bensalem police in September 1998. He later took part in a pre-trial diversion program for first-time nonviolent offenders. At the completion of the program in January 2000, former Bucks County Judge Barry McAndrews issued an order directing police and other agencies it made the record available for to expunge the arrest and criminal record for Taha within 30 days.
After learning about his arrest information being put online by the county several years ago, Taha filed his lawsuit. Shortly after, the county removed the lookup tool, telling media it was being placed offline due to a legal challenge.
“We are gratified by the jury’s verdict,” said attorney Jonathan Shub of Kohn, Swift & Graf P.C. “This case has always been about Bucks’ conduct in protecting the privacy of almost 68,000 people. The evidence at trial overwhelmingly proved that they dropped the ball in a reckless manner and the jury’s verdict sent a clear message to Bucks that this conduct will not be tolerated.”
Shub further told this news organization in a phone interview that the outcome of the novel case, for which no precedent could be found, had left Taha “very elated.”
County officials issued a lengthy statement and stated they were “extremely disappointed” at the decision.
Bucks County taxpayers are on the hook for the entire judgement amount with no insurance covering it.
A similar case had previously been made against Montgomery County but was dismissed by a judge in that county. The difference in the Bucks County case is that it was heard in federal court, Shub said.
The lawsuit first included Bensalem police and the company that owns Mugshots.com. As the case progressed, those two defendants were dropped.
Below is the county’s full statement:
Yesterday’s verdict in Taha v. Bucks County was extremely disappointing. We have always believed – and continue to believe – that the County’s inmate lookup tool did not violate the Pennsylvania Criminal History Record Information Act (“CHRIA”), much less that the County willfully violated that Act. Thus, we vigorously dispute that Taha or the class members he represents are entitled to any punitive damages at all.
The County launched its inmate lookup tool for a single purpose: empowering crime victims by providing information to enable them to verify the whereabouts of those accused of crimes against them. Prior to the launch of the County’s inmate lookup tool, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania developed the Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification program (“SAVIN”), an important service that provides victims of crime with information regarding offenders in Pennsylvania county prisons. More specifically, SAVIN enables crime victims to quickly take steps to ensure their safety by notifying the victims of any changes in an offender’s custody status.
Moreover, Bucks County was not alone in creating an inmate lookup tool. Numerous other counties throughout Pennsylvania maintained inmate lookup tools that contained the same or similar information to the County’s inmate lookup tool and continued to do so for years. Importantly, there was no suggestion by anyone at that time that this tool violated CHRIA or any other law.
The incarceration information became easily obtainable because of commercial mugshots websites. Those companies, such as mugshots.com, specifically targeted the County and other public entities by taking the information from the inmate lookup tools and using it for their own purposes to obtain money from those who had criminal records.
Nevertheless, as the trial court recognized in its 2016 opinion, there has been no evidence that the plaintiff has suffered any compensable harm or injury whatsoever as a result of the County’s inmate lookup tool.
Unfortunately, our confidence in the justice system is shaken after yesterday’s verdict. Thus, we intend to take all appropriate actions through the legal process to challenge the verdict in this case.