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$67M federal jury verdict: Bucks County ‘willfully’ violated criminal-records act

The case stemmed from a 2013 lawsuit filed by a New Jersey man who had been arrested in Bensalem in 1998 and whose arrest record was supposed to have been expunged.

The federal courthouse on the 600 block of Market Street in Philadelphia, where the Bucks County case was heard, is shown in a file photo.
The federal courthouse on the 600 block of Market Street in Philadelphia, where the Bucks County case was heard, is shown in a file photo.Read moreJULIE SHAW / Staff

A federal jury on Tuesday ruled against Bucks County in a class-action lawsuit, finding that county officials had acted with reckless disregard or indifference in disseminating protected criminal-history information on about 67,000 people in an online inmate-lookup tool.

The eight-member jury in Philadelphia awarded $1,000 to each of the roughly 67,000 members in the class — the approximate number of people who had been booked into the county jail from 1938 to 2013 — meaning that Bucks County could have to pay out about $67 million.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone already had ruled in March 2016 that Bucks County violated the state’s Criminal History Record Information Act by making protected criminal-history information publicly available on its online Inmate Lookup Tool.

At issue before the jury this month was whether the county had “willfully” violated the state’s criminal-records act by making such information available online, and if so, how much to award each class member. The act mandates an amount from $1,000 to $10,000.

Beetlestone on Tuesday told jurors that a willful violation meant that county officials acted with a “reckless disregard or indifference.” She said it did not mean that officials intended to violate the act.

The claim stemmed from a 2013 lawsuit brought against the county by Daryoush Taha, of Sicklerville, N.J. Taha had been arrested by Bensalem Police in September 1998 and charged with harassment, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. He was locked up in the Bucks County Correctional Facility and released the next day.

After Taha completed a one-year probationary program for nonviolent first-time offenders, a Bucks County judge ordered that his arrest record be expunged.

But in 2011, Taha discovered that his incarceration information, including his photograph, personal details, and charges, was available on the online Inmate Lookup Tool. As a result, Taha suffered emotional distress and the invasion of his privacy, he alleged in his lawsuit. After the suit was filed, the county removed all inmate mugshots and most arrest information from the online tool.

Beetlestone agreed to give the lawsuit class-action status.

Theodore Schaer, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, told jurors in his closing argument Tuesday that “this is an important case” about privacy that affects everyone in Pennsylvania.

“Residents have the right to expect local governments to follow the law,” he said, adding: “Your decision today is far-reaching and important and maybe even precedential.”

Taha had testified during the one-week trial, but was not in court Tuesday. Schaer, who represented the plaintiffs with lawyers Jonathan Shub and Alan Denenberg, said after the verdict that the jury was sending all municipalities in the state a clear message that “privacy and data security have to be taken seriously.”

Frank Chernak, a lawyer for Bucks County, said in his closing that Bucks officials did not realize that the Inmate Lookup Tool violated the act. “From our knowledge, nobody reported it as a problem,” he said.

Schaer, Shub, Denenberg, and Chernak are all Center City lawyers.

Chernak declined to comment afterward. Larry King, a Bucks County spokesperson, said by email: “The Bucks County commissioners are just learning of the decision and will have no comment on it this evening. The county may have more to say on this matter [Wednesday].”