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Taha v. Bucks County

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

February 21, 2014

DARYOUSH TAHA Individually and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated
v.
BUCKS COUNTY, et al.

MEMORANDUM

L. Felipe Restrepo United States District Judge

Daryoush Taha brings this putative class action suit against Bucks County and the Bucks County Correctional Facility (collectively “the County defendants”), along with the companies that operate the websites mugshots. com, mugshotsonline. com and bustedmugshots. com. Taha alleges that the defendants published his expunged arrest record in violation of Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act (“CHRIA”), 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 9101 et seq. He further alleges that the corporate defendants have violated 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8316, which prohibits the unauthorized use of a name or likeness, and have committed the invasion-of-privacy tort of “false light.”

The County defendants have moved to dismiss Taha’s claims against them pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and (b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. They argue that governmental immunity bars Taha’s claim for damages under the CHRIA, and that his claim for injunctive relief must be dismissed because he has not shown a sufficient risk of future harm. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.

I. Background

The alleged facts relevant to this motion are straightforward. Taha was arrested in 1998 by the Bensalem police, booked into custody, and transferred to the Bucks County Correctional Facility (“BCCF”). Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”), ECF Doc. 33, ¶¶ 20-21. In the course of that process the police and BCCF created a file that included information about Taha and his arrest, along with his photograph. See Id . ¶¶ 20-22. While Taha “strongly believed himself to be innocent of all charges, ” he accepted and completed an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (“ARD”) “in order to secure the automatic expungement of all charges and avoid the damage to his reputation and career prospects that would arise from having a criminal record.” Id. ¶¶ 23-24. In 2000, after Taha completed the ARD program, the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas entered an expungement order. Id.

In 2007, according to the allegations, the County defendants created a public website that included the booking photographs and arrest records of people who had been incarcerated in Bucks County – including those “who had been arrested years before and had their charges either expunged or dismissed.” Id. ¶¶ 30-31. This allowed the corporate defendants to obtain Taha’s record and picture and publish them on their own websites for “public consumption, ” without Taha’s consent. Id. ¶ 33. At the time he filed his original complaint in 2012, Taha’s information and photograph remained available on the BCCF site. See Id . ¶ 32. Taha had been convicted of no crime in the thirteen years since his arrest, see Id . ¶ 34; the internet publication of his “mugshot” and 1998 record caused him reputational, emotional and financial harm. See Id . ¶¶ 39-41.

Counts I and II of Taha’s Second Amended Complaint allege that the County defendants disseminated Taha’s criminal history record information in violation of § 9121 of the CHRIA, 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 9101 et seq. The County defendants move to dismiss both counts.

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

This Court has federal subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. To decide a motion to dismiss, a court may consider “the allegations contained in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint and matters of public record.” Pension Ben. Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993).

Because this is a diversity action, Pennsylvania’s substantive law applies. See Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78-80 (1938). Where the law is unclear and there is no controlling decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, this Court must “predict” how it would rule, giving “due regard, but not conclusive effect, to the decisional law of lower state courts.” Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Buffetta, 230 F.3d 634, 637 (3d Cir. 2000); see also West v. AT&T Co., 311 U.S. 223, 237 (1940).

III. Discussion

A. Governmental Immunity from CHRIA Damages Claim

The County defendants move to dismiss Count I on the grounds that they are immune from suits for damages pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (“PSTCA”), 42 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 8541-42.[1] Taha contends that the PSTCA does not shield government entities from CHRIA damages claims. Because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not directly addressed the applicability of the PSTCA in this context, I must predict how it would rule. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 230 F.3d at 637.

1) The CHRIA

The Pennsylvania legislature adopted the CHRIA in 1980 in order to “provide for an orderly collection and dissemination of criminal history information in the Commonwealth.” Commw. of Pa. Office of Att’y Gen., Criminal History Record Information Act Handbook 1 (7th ed. 2013) [hereinafter CHRIA Handbook]. Most centrally, the CHRIA tasks the Pennsylvania State Police with the “collection, compilation, maintenance and dissemination of criminal history record information” through a “central repository.” Id. § 9102. “Criminal justice agencies” – governmental units that include courts, police departments, jails and prisons, see Id . – must collect and relay certain information to the central repository, ensuring that it is accurate. See Id . §§ 9111-14. To the extent they maintain their own “repositories” or “automated systems, ” they must comply with provisions relating to accuracy, security and public notice. See Id . §§ 9102, 9106, 9111-14, 9131, 9142, 9171. Section 9121, the provision at issue here, imposes restrictions on the “dissemination” of criminal history information by criminal justice agencies and police departments.

The CHRIA establishes separate requirements for the official handling of sensitive “protected information, ” id. § 9106, as well as procedures for expungement, see Id . § 9122-23. It also includes two provisions limiting the use of criminal records by state licensing agencies and by employers (in making hiring decisions). See Id . §§ 9124-25. Subchapter F establishes an “individual right of access and review” of a person’s own record information, see Id . ยงยง 9151-53, while ...


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