Pa. county loses bid to overturn $68M damage award for releasing former inmate information

A federal jury found Bucks County violated the privacy of thousands of former county inmates by posting confidential information on a publicly accessible database


By Jo Ciavaglia
Bucks County Courier Times
 

Levittown, Pa. — Bucks County has lost its initial attempt to overturn a nearly $68 million punitive damage award for violating the privacy of thousands of former county inmates by posting confidential information on a publicly accessible database.

U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone issued her order Friday rejecting the county's petition to reconsider the record-setting award as well as its request for a new trial.

The decision clears the way for the case to move to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The appeal is expected to take one to two years, according to Jonathan Shub, one of the attorneys representing the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit.

"Plaintiffs believe the district court's detailed opinion arrived at the correct result," Shub said. "The court's opinion respects the jury's finding."

Through a spokesman, Bucks County officials declined comment Monday.

In May a federal jury found Bucks County violated the state's Criminal History Record Information Act, known as CHRIA, when it disseminated confidential criminal history information and failed to remove outdated or inaccurate information for nearly 68,000 individuals who were processed at the county jail from 1938 to 2013, when the county stripped the database of virtually all inmate information. The law bars non-law enforcement agencies, including county jails, from sharing criminal records with the public and imposes a mandatory penalty of $1,000 to $10,000 for each violation.

The five-day trial stemmed from a 2012 lawsuit filed by Daryoush Taha, a Sicklerville, New Jersey, man whose personal information and mug shot appeared on the county's inmate lookup tool 11 years after his 1998 arrest was expunged. The lawsuit was given class-action status in 2016.

Current Deputy Director of Corrections Clarke Fulton and retired Director of Corrections Harris Gubernick are identified as the corrections employees who authorized and oversaw the expansion of the county's online inmate lookup tool in January 2011, according to trial transcripts and court documents.

During the trial, though, Fulton and Gubernick each testified it was the other one's responsible for authorizing the changes the court found violated the law.

Each man testified they were not well familiarized with CHRIA, but they were aware certain information such as state fingerprint identification numbers and FBI identification numbers were considered confidential, according to court filings.

The men also testified they did not seek outside legal options about whether aspects of the enhanced inmate lookup tool violated CHRIA.

Fulton testified he did not reach out to the software vendor about customizing the inmate lookup tool until months after the lawsuit was filed.

Gubernick testified he reviewed other county inmate lookup websites but did nothing more than go to two or three county homepages. And he didn't contact officials to question their inmate lookup tools.

Bucks County has disputed the court's interpretation that it willfully violated CHRIA through "reckless disregard or indifference" to its legal obligation to protect confidential information.

County officials have said the online tool was created to give victims a way to verify the whereabouts of defendants accused of crimes against them in conjunction with a similar online tool known as Statewide Automated Victim Information Network (SAVIN) and it did not believe it violated CHRIA.

Bucks County taxpayers have footed $2 million in legal costs fighting the lawsuit since it was filed in December 2012, according to records obtained through a Right to Know request.

The final award could be reduced to between $46.6 million and $50.8 million based on eligible class members, according to recent court filings, but that is still more than double the $20 million the county anticipates it will have in its fund balance at the end of this year. The county's insurance will not cover the award.

©2019 Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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