Westmoreland jail officials pull curtain on inmate mugshots
Citing inmate privacy concerns, Westmoreland County Prison officials this week officially closed the door on online public access to inmate mugshots on its website.
For years, the jail’s website has provided public access to intake photographs of inmates and a list of the criminal charges against them. The public and media could access the information via the internet.
“Our solicitor (Melissa Guiddy) extensively researched this, and the prison board this week opted to be cautious and take a proactive approach. We were worried about potential civil rights violations,” said prison board Chairman Jon Held, who is also the county sheriff.
Warden John Walton said at issue is an ongoing federal lawsuit filed in Philadelphia by a New Jersey man who was once housed in Bucks County Prison.
According to online court dockets, Daryoush Taha, 46, of Sicklerville sued Bucks County in 2013, alleging it violated his civil rights when it included his intake photograph and charges of harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest stemming from a 1998 arrest in Bensalem. Taha was accepted into a one-year trial diversion program for nonviolent, first-time offenders and his arrest record was ordered expunged in 2000, the lawsuit states.
Taha’s arrest information and mugshot were still listed on the prison website in 2011 when he and his wife accessed the site, according to the lawsuit. As a result of the lawsuit, the jail’s electronic inmate lookup tool, which was established in 2011, removed all inmate mugshots and most arrest information in August 2013.
In 2016, a federal judge found that Bucks County violated the Pennsylvania Criminal History Records Information Act, known as CHRIA, when it disseminated Taha’s arrest information and mugshot. The law prohibits the dissemination of a person’s criminal history record to anyone outside law enforcement when the person has not been convicted of any crime.
Bucks County published information online from January 2011 to June 2013 about anyone held or incarcerated at the jail from 1938 onward, a total of 66,799 people, according to the lawsuit.
If the federal court determines Bucks violated the statute, the punitive award is $1,000 to $10,000 per violation.
Westmoreland County Prison’s website has information only on current inmates and is updated regularly, Held noted.
“In Bucks County, when someone was arrested, that information would continue to be posted even if it was expunged. We frequently updated our site,” the sheriff said.
Westmoreland prison officials were worried about the potential of attorneys “targeting” the prison, the warden said.
“Now, when you access the prison website, we’ve limited the information to the prisoner’s name, date of birth and the unit he or she is housed in,” Walton said. “We’re looking out for the taxpayers in Westmoreland.”
Held said Guiddy reported to the board that, based on her research on the issue, state law does not stipulate what information should appear on a prison website.
He referred additional questions to Guiddy, who did not return repeated phone calls.
Ligonier resident Ron Shannon, 56, said he regularly checked the jail’s website and appreciated having access to inmate photographs and arrest information. He was disappointed to learn that Westmoreland has removed the mug shots and specific criminal history information.
“That’s too bad. It was a way to check on what’s going on in your community, and was a great service to taxpayers,” Shannon said. “I sometimes even would look on it when I was out of town to see what was going on.”
Not all Pennsylvania counties have opted to remove inmate mugshots from their websites. Montgomery and Washington counties are among those that still post them.
In Armstrong County, Warden Phillip Shaffer said officials “opted” to remove prisoner photographs about six months ago because of legal concerns.
“We decided there was no sense taking a chance (with a lawsuit),” Shaffer said.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the state law in the federal lawsuit, CHRIA, applies only to law enforcement and not the news media. News media often use inmate mugshots with crime stories.
“I’ll be anxious to see how the lawsuit plays out. CHRIA doesn’t apply to what the media publishes. … Newspapers have an absolute constitutional right to publish the criminal charge information regardless of the case outcome,” she said.
She noted that state police successfully have argued before Pennsylvania courts that certain photographs and videos are not public if they are part of an ongoing investigation.
In June, the state Supreme Court ruled that state police dashboard camera footage of the aftermath of a car crash must be released under the state’s Right-to-Know Law. However, the decision noted that releases must be determined on a case-by-case basis in situations when they can’t be released because they are part of an investigation.
“But a photograph taken of an inmate at a prison I wouldn’t think would have any investigative purpose. I would think the purpose would be administrative,” Melewsky said.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860.