BUCKS COUNTY — Bucks County intends to appeal a federal jury's verdict from May 28 that found them to be in violation of Pennsylvania's Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA).
The county was brought into question after criminal history had been disseminated through an inmate lookup tool on the county's website.
Members of the lawsuit, Taha v. County of Bucks, have been awarded punitive damages of $1,000 for each member, with the precise number of eligible recipients to be determined by the court at a later date.
Any of the 66,799 individuals booked in the Bucks County Correctional Facility — spanning from 1938 to 2013 — whose information was disseminated via the inmate lookup tool is eligible to receive damages part of the award. The total award of the ruling could amount to as much as $67 million.
The case was filed in 2013 after Daryoush Taha found his mugshot on "mugshots.com," a commercial site that published criminal history records of individuals who had been incarcerated.
At the time of the finding, Taha's record had been ordered to be expunged more than 10 years earlier, according to a CNN report on May 29.
In 2013, before Taha filed the suit, he wrote a letter to the county asking why the expungement had not been handled.
The county’s response claimed they did not know Taha's record had not been expunged, according to Jonathan Shub, an attorney for Kohn, Swift & Graf, P.C., and co-lead counsel for the class.
The case lasted five days in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and was heard before the Honorable Wendy Beetlestone.
She ruled Bucks County violated Section 9121 of CHRIA where the law states — “Only state or local police departments shall disseminate criminal history record information to noncriminal justice agencies and individuals.”
This information is not superseded by or involved with Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.
The jury found the county to have "willfully violated" the act, which resulted in punitive damages being awarded to the class.
According to Shub, this was due to the county recklessly disregarding the law by disseminating the information.
"We're quite pleased [with the verdict] because we believe the jury sent a signal that the reckless treatment of one's information has consequences," Shub said.
The county's intent to appeal is based upon the reasoning that the inmate lookup tool did not violate the act, and they specifically did not do so in a willful manner.
“We vigorously dispute that Taha or the class members he represents are entitled to any punitive damages at all," according to the Bucks County Commissioners in a press release.
Prior to the launch of Bucks County's inmate lookup tool, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania developed the Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification program (SAVIN).
SAVIN provides crime victims with information regarding offenders in Pennsylvania county prisons and, according to the county, "enables crime victims to quickly take steps to ensure their safety by notifying the victims of any changes in an offender's custody status."
The Bucks County Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) recommends the use of Pennsylvania’s inmate lookup tool and has helped victims get registered for SAVIN, according to Angela McGettigan, Director of Community Relations and Development for NOVA.
Bucks County NOVA Advocates, along with tools like SAVIN and the Pennsylvania Court Docket Portal, have provided victims with notification sources beyond the county run inmate lookup tool being questioned in the lawsuit.
“Victims use this information to keep themselves and their families safe and for peace of mind,” McGettigan said. “[They] are usually interested in this information primarily for the offender’s location, not to learn personal information about them.”
The original purpose behind the county inmate lookup tool — keeping victims informed of offender whereabouts — started to get manipulated when offender personal information began getting copied and disseminated for commercial purposes.
"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," the county said in its press release.
Bucks County also claims numerous other counties throughout Pennsylvania maintained inmate lookup tools that contained the same or similar information, and they continued to do so for years.
If other counties are found to be disseminating similar information, they may also be at risk of facing lawsuits awarding damages for CHRIA violations.
"I think this decision will have a chilling impact on the use of locator tools that violate CHRIA," Shub said.
Bucks County hopes that a different decision will be reached in appellate court.
"We intend to take all appropriate actions through the legal process to challenge the verdict in this case," county commissioners said.
Though Shub believes it is the county's prerogative to appeal, he thinks doing so "will further display an arrogance that Bucks County has displayed throughout this case."
In the meantime, Kohn, Swift & Graf, P.C. is trying to locate individuals who are a part of the class, and those who may be eligible can visit chrialitigation.com to provide their information.