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Pennsylvania’s Buck County Liable for Illegally Disclosing Criminal Records

by David M. Reutter

A federal jury awarded $1,000 to each person who was subjected to a privacy violation due to Buck County’s willful violation of Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA). Up to 66,799 people whose arrest information was posted online are eligible for inclusion in the class-action lawsuit.

The suit was filed in 2013 by Daryoush Taha, who was arrested on September 29, 1998 by the Bensalem Police Department and booked into the Bucks County Correctional Facility (BCCF) on various charges. Taha was subsequently placed into an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for one year on one of the charges, and the others were either discharged or nol prossed. Upon completion of the program, the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas ordered the records of the participants to be expunged.

Despite that order, in 2007 the BCCF disseminated information about Taha’s arrest on a county website. The site published his mugshot and criminal arrest record. In 2011, Unpublish LLC, which does business as mugshots.com, and Citizens Information Associates, LLC (CIA), which operates bustedmugshots.com and mugshotsonline.com, obtained the arrest information and published it on their respective sites.

Taha sued Bucks County and the two companies in 2012, alleging the county had violated CHRIA and raising a “false light/invasion of privacy” claim against Unpublish and CIA. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.62]. The claim against Bucks County went to trial and the jury returned a verdict on May 28, 2019. It found the county had willfully violated CHRIA and awarded punitive damages of $1,000 to each class member, which could amount to over $66 million.

“This is a landmark decision in the arena of the criminal stigma on the Internet,” said Jonathan Shub, one of the class attorneys. He said the verdict sends “a message to local counties and governments in general that privacy matters and that you cannot recklessly put out our data on the Internet.”

Bucks County countered that it “vigorously dispute[s]” that Taha or the class is entitled to punitive damages. It also said the two companies took advantage of its “inmate lookup tool” for commercial value. “Those companies, such as mugshots.com, specifically targeted the County and use[d] it for their own purposes to obtain money from those who had criminal records,” Bucks County commissioners said in a statement.

The county expects that 45,000 to 55,000 people would be eligible for payments. “We know that certain [class members] are dead,” Shub noted. The defendants appealed to the Third Circuit in late July 2019, and their appeal remains pending. See: Taha v. Bucks County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:12-cv-06867-WB. 

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Additional sources: CNN, WFMZ

Related legal case

Taha v. Bucks County