The class action’s lead plaintiff found his record online some fifteen years after it was expunged.
A federal jury has ruled against Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, finding that jail administrators recklessly disseminated the criminal history of nearly 70,000 people via an online, inmate look-up tool.
The Inquirer reports that, on Tuesday, an eight-person jury in Philadelphia opted to award $1,000 to each of the 67,000 participants in the class action. While not every class member signed aboard, the figure corresponds to the approximate number of people who were booked through the Bucks County jail from 1938 to 2013.
The jury’s award means that Bucks County, just north of Philadelphia, may have to pay $67 million to many former inmates and detainees.
The county jail’s controversial Inmate Lookup Tool had already attracted legal scrutiny. In 2016, U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone determined that the tool violated the Pennsylvania Criminal History Record Information Act by putting protected records online.
However, the jury was tasked with finding whether Bucks County had “willfully” violated state law. According to Beetlestone’s direction, a willful violation is one made with “reckless disregard or indifference” to an outcome.
The Inquirer recaps the lawsuit’s origins, which suggests that Bucks County’s Inmate Lookup Tool was callous.
The initial complaint, notes The Inquirer, was filed in 2013 by Daryoush Taha, a New Jersey resident who’d been arrested by Bensalem police in 1998. Charged with a series of petty offenses—harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest—Taha was processed at the Bucks Cunty Jail and forced to spend the night before being released.
Taha was never sentenced to do hard time—as a first-time, non-violent offender, he was given a year’s probation. After successfully completing its terms, Taha’s criminal record was expunged.
In theory, Taha’s record should’ve been publicly inaccessible. While many states do retain copies of expunged criminal records, they can’t ordinarily be obtained or viewed without compelling reason—a sensitive, government-mandated background check, for instance.
But in 2011, Taha found that all of his information was available via Bucks’ Inmate Lookup Tool. The jail’s website shared his mugshot, personal details and charges, all retrievable by anyone who knew his name.
Taha, predictably, claimed to have suffered emotional distress from finding what should’ve been a long-since-closed chapter of his life still open for perusal.
Because of Taha’s circumstances and the many other affected, Beetlestone agreed to the certify the suit as a class action.
Before jurors began deliberating Tuesday, Theodore Schaer—attorney for one of the plaintiffs—claimed the case’s outcome was “important” and had implications for all Pennsylvanians.
“Residents have the right to expect local governments to follow the law,” Schaer said, telling jurors that, “Your decision today is far-reaching and important and maybe even precedential.”
The case, notes the Bucks County Courier Times, is ‘considered significant’ because it’s the first time a court has processed and punished a “willful” violation of the state’s Criminal History Record Information Act.
While Taha wasn’t in court for the verdict, his attorney, Jonathon Shub, expressed content with the outcome.
“We are gratified by the jury’s verdict,” Shub said. “We believe that the jury sent a message to Bucks County and all other government entities that reckless handling of private, personal information—this time in the form of criminal records—will not be tolerated.”