Facebook Posts Can Land You In Jail!

Did you know that a single Facebook post can land you in jail?  Its true, an acting judge in Westchester NY recently ruled that a ‘tag’ notification on Facebook violated  a protective order.  The result of the violation; second-degree contempt, which can lead to punishment of up to a year in jail.   In January, the a judge issued a  restraining order against Maria Gonzalez, prohibiting her from communicating with her former sister-in-law, Maribel Calderon.  Restraining orders are issued to prevent person from making contact with protected individuals.  Traditionally, courts interpreted contact to mean direct communications in person, mail, email, phone, voicemail or even text.   Facebook tags, however, present a slightly different form of contact.

Unlike Facebook messages, tagging someone identifies the tagged person on the poster’s Facebook page.  The tag, however, has the concurrent effect of linking to the identified person’s profile; thereby notifying them of the post.  Ms. Gonzalez tagged Calderon in a post on her (Gonzalez’s) timeline calling Calderon stupid and writing “you have a sad family.”  Gonzalez argued the post did not violate the protective order since there was no contact aimed directly at Calderon.  Acting Westchester (NY) County Supreme Court Justice Susan Capeci felt otherwise writing a restraining order includes “contacting the protected party by electronic or other means.”  Other means, it seems, is through personal posts put out on social media.

And Social Media posts aren’t just evidence of orders of protection violations, they are also grounds for supporting the issuance of restraining orders.  In 2013, a court granted an order of protection for actress Ashley Tinsdale against an alleged stalker.  Tinsdale’s lawyers presented evidence of over 19,000 tweets that the alleged stalker posted about the actress (an average of 100 tweets per day).

The bottom line:  Naming another on a social media post, even one that is directed to the twittersphere or Facebook community, rather than toward a particular individual,  is sufficient contact for purposes of supporting restraining orders or violations thereof.   We should all keep our posts positives –even more so if we have been told to stay away!!!

Five not so smart “smart phone” uses: How using your smart phone can lead to criminal conviction

Yes, your mother always told you “everyone is doing it” is not an excuse and nowhere is that this more true than with smart phone use. Just ask the hundreds of students in Canon City Colorado who could face child pornography charges for housing sexts on their phones. Or Owen Labrie, the high school student at St. Paul School convicted last month for luring an underage minor through the Internet.

Truth is, lots of smart phone activity that you may think is o.k. can actually lead you down a path that ends with you having to check the dreaded “yes” box when asked on a college or job application, “have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

 

Here are five not so smart “smart phone” uses and their legal consequences.

 

1.            Sending a sext to an underage friend can require you to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life.

Forwarding a picture of your nude or semi-nude self is child pornography, if, that is, you take the picture before you are eighteen years old.  And regardless of your age, receiving one of those pictures or forwarding them, is also child pornography and can lead to conviction, jail time and a requirement that you register as a sex offender.  Just Ask Phillip Alpert. The 18 year-old forwarded a nude selfie that his 16 year-old girlfriend had sent him. His decision resulted in 72 criminal charges and conviction as a registered sex offender.  Alpert, who by all accounts is a good kid who made a bad decision, is, for the next 25 years, prohibited from living near a school, working with children and using the internet freely.

2.            Catfishing can land you in jail.

Catfishing isn’t just a show on MTV. Catfishing, the practice of impersonating someone to lure another to fall in love, is a crime in some states. California, New York, Texas and Washington are among the states that have criminalized online impersonation. In fact, last year, a New Jersey teen created a fictitious Facebook profile and used it to entice a classmate into an online relationship. The teen, Andriy Mykhaylivsky, lead his classmate to believe that the fake girl had been kidnapped, prompting his duped “buddy” to call the U.S. Embassy and file a missing persons report. As a result of catfishing, Mykhaylivsky was convicted of making false statements to a U.S. official and sentenced to six months in jail and $500.00.

 

3. Consensual sex with an underage minor met through a dating app is statutory rape, even if the minor lied about her age in her profile.

Last year, Zach Anderson communicated with a young woman on Hotornot.com who despite being 14 at the time, listed herself as 17 years old on her profile, and who, by all accounts, looked that age.    Hotornot prohibited 13-17 year olds from accessing the “adults only” sections of the website, so it was reasonable for Anderson to think the girl with whom he was communicating was really 17. After some online flirting the two met up and Anderson engaged in consensual sex with the girl.   Police subsequently arrested a cooperative Anderson and he was charged fourth-degree criminal sexual assault for which he pled guilty and spent 90 days in jail.  As Anderson learned, a misunderstanding as to the minor’s age is no defense to the crime, even if the minor is the one who caused the misunderstanding.  Anderson’s experience is becoming increasingly common, and some estimate that 25% of those convicted of engaging in sex with a minor have experienced a similar circumstance.

 

4.            Luring a minor over the internet is a crime, even if both parties are minors.

Although initially conceived to stop child predators, courts are using the crime of luring a minor over the internet to punish teenage contemporaries. The crime is defined as expressing interest over the internet to meet a person for sexual purposes. When Owen Labrie, a senior at St. Paul School prep school, sent a 15 year old girl a “senior salute” — a spring semester tradition in which a senior boy sends a younger girl an email to solicit a romantic encounter, he was charged with the and convicted of the crime.    In other words, texting someone under 17 about a hook-up could result in a jail sentence.

 

 

5.            Posting on Anonymous Apps is not really anonymous

Since its inception in 2013, police on several colleges and universities have arrested Yik Yakers for posting threating comments on the app.  Last week, police arrested Connor Stottlemyre, a 19 year old  student at Northwest Missouri State for posting a terrorist message in response to the racial unrest at the University of Missouri.   A 21 year old Virginia Tech student pled guilty to harassment by computer after using Yik Yak to post “Another 4.16 moment is going to happen tomorrow. Just a warning,” a reference to the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.  In both instances the police were able to access the IP address of the poster and through that information, track him down.  Although Yik Yak is anonymous it maintains a private log of the IP addresses along with the user’s GPS coordinates and the time and place of posting.  If police present Yik Yak, or any other app with a legally valid search warrant, the app is required to turn the information over for investigation, an investigation which often leads to arrest.

 

Best to use smart phones smartly

Would a juror believe that Bob Marley “shot the sheriff” if he posted it to his Facebook Page?

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the prosecution’s introduction of social media evidence to support a conviction against an alleged gang member for narcotics sales, murder and related crimes. The case, United States v. Pierce,  concerned several defendants including Melvin Colon, a member of a Bronx N.Y. street gang.  As evidence against Colon, the prosecution introduced posts Colon made to his Facebook page including a video of Colon rapping “Somebody make somebody nose bleed / I’m OG shoot the Ruger / I’m a shooter,” and a picture of Colon’s hand showing a “Y.G.K.” tattoo.  YGK stands for Young Gunnaz Killer, and Gunnaz was the rival gang against whom Colon committed his violence.

At trial Colon argued that introduction of the Facebook posts violated his First Amendment rights because his conviction “rested on a form of expression, however distasteful, which the Constitution tolerates and protects.” The Court rejected his argument since the speech was not the basis of the prosecution, in other words, Colon was not prosecuted for making the posts, but rather the posts were used as evidence of his participation in a different crime.

The Court also rejected Colon’s argument that the Facebook posts were merely “fictional artistic expression,” which should not be used against him.  The Second Circuit, referencing a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case, acknowledged that violent rap lyrics alone are insufficient to sustain a conviction.  However, where the violent rap lyrics and the like survive a Fed. R. Evid. 403 challenges and their probative value outweighs their danger of unfair prejudice, the evidence is admissible.  The court ultimately sustained Colon’s conviction.

Should Courts allow Facebook Posts as Evidence of Lack of Remorse?

Last month Orange County Prosecutors charged Victoria Graswald with the murder of her fiancé Vincent Viafore.  Ms. Graswald allegedly tampered with Mr. Viafore’s kayak while the two were boating in the icy (yes again icy – see post below) water of the Hudson River. As a result, prosecutors argue, Mr. Viafore drowned.

Although Mr. Viafore’s body has yet to be found, prosecutors believed that Ms. Graswald’s inconsistent stories, and pictures she posted on Facebook after the accident were sufficient to indict her for her fiancé’s death.  They cite as evidence a picture of Ms. Graswald in a yoga pose against a bucolic setting and a video of her doing a cartwheel.

Facebook posts that demonstrate a lack of remorse have been figuring into criminal prosecutions for a while.  in 2011 Casey Anthony was indicted in the media for posts she shared of a “Bella Vida” tattoo she emblazoned on her back shoulder and pictures she posted showing Ms. Anthony partying while her daughter was still missing.   A California, judge sentenced a woman to 2 years in jail for her first DUI offense (typical first time offenders are given probation).  The judge cited a post- arrest picture the woman posted to MySpace while holding a drink.

But are Facebook posts, with all of their innuendo, a fair measures of guilt.   The Casey Anthony jury probably didn’t think so; although all we know for sure is that the posts, considered as part of the prosecution’s entire case, were not sufficient to lead to a guilty verdict.  And arguably posts, without a body, will not provide the lack of reasonable doubt necessary to convict Ms. Graswald.

But should these pictures hold the weight that members of the criminal justice system increasingly ascribe to them?  A problem seems to be context.  While the pictures seem damning when posted during or soon after an investigation, the evidence is circumstantial at best.  Absent testimony by the defendant corroborating his or her intent at the time of the post, (an event unlikely to happen) jurors can never be certain that the pictures demonstrate an expression of relief or a lack of remorse.

The issue of post-indictment remorse is transcends social media. Prosecutors recently introduced into evidence a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Bomber) flashing his middle finger into a camera from a jail holding cell.  But Tsarnaev’s attorney, like Ms. Graswald’s spun the picture in a way that suggests it has nothing to do with a lack of remorse.

And therein lies the problem, skilled attorney’s on either side can explain  pictures, and intent while posting them, from several different angles.  The issue becomes whether their value is sufficient to justify supporting an indictment for a crime? a conviction? or a sentence?

Thoughts?

“There Oughta be a Law”

In February 2015, two young men dared  Parker Drake to jump into a frigid ocean for virtual entertainment. Parker, who doctors diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder, first “met” the men through twitter. After several exchanges the young men took Parker to the ocean, “for laughs” dared him to jump in and then videotaped Parker’s struggle to return to shore.  The men published the video on Facebook, you could hear them laugh as Parker battled the waves.

Upon discovering the tape, Manasquan, NJ Municipal Court officials charged the men with “endangering the welfare of an incompetent person.”  The problem, however, is that because 19 year old Parker voluntarily jumped into the ocean, the men had not, in fact, committed a crime.

The case is another example of a moral wrong failing to translate into a legal wrong.  Sadly, laws do not exist to punish those who use social media for bullying; just consider the events that prompted Tyler Clementi to jump off the George Washington Bridge.  With this unfortunate event, Parker’s mother joins the rank of parents who fail to see justice in the courts for reprehensible harms committed against their children.

The response to the Parker Drake event, much like the response to many  social media wrongs for which the criminal law offers no retribution, is both outrage and frustration.   Parker’s mother is seeking justice in the civil courts.  The politicians have weighed in too.  Just last week several New Jersey lawmakers announced their intention to draft a law aimed atpunishing individuals who victimized disabled persons.

The law is not well suited for punishment of harms like the one that happened to Parker.  Our Constitution often stands as a roadblock between justice for social media wrongs and the right to voice opinions and ideas.  First Amendment concerns prevent punishing many types of speech, particularly outside of the classroom.   And then there are issues of “void for vagueness.”  A law that punishes those who exploit the developmentally disabled leaves open to interpretation what constitutes “exploitation.” (and I suspect defendants charged in a crime such as this might try to escape punishment by challenging whether his or her “victim” was developmentally disabled.”)

I am interested in seeing the legislation New Jersey law makers propose.  My hope is that they can walk the fine line between justice and free speech.  The lawyer in me, however, suspects that the bill will never make it to the Governor’s desk; as we have seen too many times before, regulating social media bullying in the courts is a nearly impossible task.

 

 

 

Facebook: Watching your every move since 2012

It finally happened.  My mother joined Facebook.  I’m not sure what the current population of planet earth is, but it’s probably around 1.28 billion.  I know this because that’s how many people are currently using Facebook[1].

A few years ago when the company went public, people started complaining about a perceived lack of privacy.  Most people were concerned that the constantly evolving format created a need to always be aware that what you were posting would be directed to the appropriate audience.  What many people hadn’t yet realized was that Facebook had begun mining information at an unprecedented rate.

Sign-in to Facebook today and notice that those shoes you just considered purchasing are now featured prominently on your news feed.  That Google search you just performed has now caused advertisements to display alongside your profile.  It almost seems like Mark Zuckerberg is stalking us.  Taking their data-mining scheme to the next level, Facebook has gone on a spending spree.  They recently purchased popular apps Instagram and Whatsapp.  Those who use these apps have probably noticed that you can login to them using your Facebook information.

As the complaints have increased, Facebook has come up with a proposed solution – the “anonymous login.”  What it will do is allow users to login to third-party apps without giving any personal information to that app.  However, Facebook will still verify your identity, know what app you’ve signed in to, and they’ll know how often you sign in and how much time you spend on that app[2].

It seems that “anonymous” doesn’t really mean what we thought.  Where should the data-mining line be drawn?


[1] http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/resource-how-many-people-use-the-top-social-media/3/

[2] http://mashable.com/2014/05/01/facebooks-anonymous-login-is-evil-genius/

Does Social Media Replace the Need to Think? Has it Caused Our Critical Thinking Skills to Shrink?

 As we all know, through social media, information disseminates with lightning speed.  Instantly, millions are up to date and provided conclusions to a variety of stories and issues. Users simply acquire, retain, and click (i.e., re-tweet, like or dislike), easy-peasy- free of thought.  Is this troubling?  Robert Frost once said “Thinking isn’t agreeing or disagreeing.  That’s voting.”

Accordingly, if a re-tweet is nothing more than a vote for the product of the analysis of others , and if clicking Facebook’s “like” button simply allows over 1 billion users to avoid intellectual expression all together, are we setting a trend abandoning 2500 years of trans-disciplinary critical thinking?  Is this dangerous to future generations?  Is this a good trend, beneficial perhaps?  Is it worrisome that social media allows so many to routinely supplant active argumentation? 

In 1987, the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defined critical thinking as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.  In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.   Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior.”

Thinking is thus to be contrasted with:  the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated.  If this is true, it means that the net intellectual engagement in context- for millions of social media users- amounts to nothing more than a preferential re-tweet, and/or clicking “like”/“dislike,” with a smile. 

But with only so many users, social media remains a form of entertainment.  One may argue: Relax!  It’s fun.  There are plenty of people left who still read and think!  Okay, but what happens when 5 or 6 billion people become devoted users?  How much fun would that look like?  Perhaps it is just evolution?

  Could it be that “thinking” is simply a natural process that will adapt to social media and evolve accordingly, in a beneficial way?  Perhaps an active mode of thinking- where the thinker consciously separates facts from opinions and challenges assumptions- is becoming outdated? 

Social Media Companies and Subpoena’s

Given the digital goldmine of potential evidence available from social media websites, it is not surprising that they are increasingly targeted by search warrants and government subpoenas in criminal matters.

I recently had a conversation with an Assistant District Attorney that stated when they subpoena digital records from social media websites like Facebook, and Twitter, those social media companies disclose to the user that a subpoena has been ordered to release specific information from the website. As the ADA stated, “this makes it extremely difficult to investigate a person’s social media activity during an on-going investigation.” Further, when a subpoena is issued, the ADA already has creditable evidence to move forward with a subpoena to proceed with the investigation. The ADA is not issuing subpoena’s to invade the privacy of an individual’s innocent conduct.

This new policy from social media companies comes in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal. Just last month, Eric Snowden appeared via videoconference at the South by Southwest technology conference, urging companies to increase their security and protect their users from government intrusion. Snowden wants the technology industry to get serious about protecting the privacy of its users and customers. Since the NSA scandal, social media companies have implemented new privacy policies that have made it difficult for investigators to subpoena records. This has changed the way social media companies cooperate with government officials.

Federal law provides that, in some circumstances, the government may compel social media companies to produce social media evidence without a warrant. The Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) governs the ability of governmental entities to compel service providers, such as Twitter and Facebook, to produce content (e.g., posts and Tweets) and non-content customer records (e.g., name and address) in certain circumstances. The SCA, which was passed in 1986, has not been amended to reflect society’s heavy use of new technologies and electronic services, such as social media, which have evolved since the SCA’s original enactment. As a result, courts have been left to determine how and whether the SCA applies to the varying features of different social media services.

Facebook has posted in a Help page article titled “May I obtain contents of a user’s account from Facebook using a civil subpoena? The article cites the Stored Communications Act as the reason that “Federal law prohibits Facebook from disclosing user content…in response to a civil subpoena,” stating unequivocally:

“Federal law prohibits Facebook from disclosing user content (such as messages, timeline posts, photos, etc.) in response to a civil subpoena. Specifically, the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq., prohibits Facebook from disclosing the contents of an account to any non-governmental entity pursuant to a subpoena or court order.”

In response to Facebook’s interpretation of SCA, a federal district court judge has held that certain elements (e.g., private messages) of a user’s Facebook or MySpace profile were protected from being subpoenaed under the Stored Communications Act by analogizing them to a type of electronic message (Bulletin Board System–BBS) that was mentioned in the Stored Communications Act. Crispin v. Audigier, 717 F.Supp.2d 965 (2010, C.D. CA).  The court quashed the defendant’s subpoenas to Facebook and MySpace requesting private messages from the plaintiff’s account.

As to the subpoenas seeking Facebook wall postings and MySpace comments, the Crispin court remanded the matter so a fuller evidentiary record regarding plaintiff’s privacy settings so it could be determined before deciding whether to quash the subpoena for that content. This implies that Facebook does not get to decide where the “privacy” bar should be set in determining whether social networking postings and comments are subject to a subpoena as Facebook’s Help pages would lead us to believe—only the court gets to decide that.

Perhaps this is why companies like Facebook have implemented a disclosure rule that notifies the user when a warrant or subpoena has been issued and requests the users site based content.

Are social media companies doing the right thing by notifying users when records are subpoenaed? Thoughts?

Social Rift

Another day, another questionable Facebook acquisition, and as engadget.com put it, another instance of the “Facebook” effect.  This particular acquisition is the $2 billion purchase of virtual reality headset manufacturer “Oculus Rift.”  Oculus Rift is a particularly unique purchase by Facebook because of its crowdfunding roots.  Oculus Rift got its start through the crowdfunding website “Kickstarter.”  Kickstarter allows individuals to contribute money to upstarts and projects often essentially pre-purchasing the product they are supporting.  Oculus Rift was able to successfully get funded and shipped its VR headsets to qualifying supporters.  Oculus was deemed to be a device that will change the gaming industry and supporters, many of them developers, wanted to get in on the ground floor.  Since its funding the Oculus Rift has improved and has been used for numerous projects, demos, and games by developers, artists, and gamers alike.

The future of the Oculus Rift will now however will be determined by Facebook its new owner to the dismay of many of Oculus’ former supporters.  Which poses an interesting legal question that Kickstarter and startups like Oculus have to consider.  What happens when your hundreds of investors on a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter think they are funding something like a unique grassroots revolution in gaming and it turns out to be bought by a social media juggernaut who may have intentions to take the company in a completely different direction?  Kickstarter has maintained that supporters on their website are not entitled to shares of the company they are supporting, viewing supporters as donators more than investors.  Many of the 9,522 initial Kickstarter backers of Oculus are now demanding their money back and expressing their displeasure online through social media such as on twitter and on Oculus’ Facebook page (irony noted).  Oculus’ Kickstarter page is riddled with comments condemning the acquisition and expressing their feelings of betrayal believing Oculus received a windfall on the shoulders of their supporters who made them who they are today.

Facebook may be able to now provide Oculus funding much greater than they have ever seen before, but their future in gaming is at risk by a number of factors.  The “Facebook effect” for instance, caused by the feeling of distrust of the social media giant by many, is already having an adverse effect with not just their Kickstarter supporters, but also by huge players in the gaming industry the platform needs to rely on.  The creator of “Minecraft,” an immensely popular game on a large number of platforms including game consoles, mobile phones, and PC’s tweeted, “We were in talks about maybe bringing a version of Minecraft to Oculus. I just cancelled that deal. Facebook creeps me out.”  Oculus also will soon no longer be the only game in town as far as virtual reality is concerned, with Sony announcing recently their own headset, Project Morpheus, for their PlayStation 4 game console.  Kotaku.com offered a quote by Sam Biddle from the blog Valleywag to offer a strong perspective to sum up the concerns of many in the crowdfunding community, “For me, it’s now simple: post-Oculus, if you back a large Kickstarter project, you’re a sucker.”

Read more at: Engadget & Kotaku

Facebook After Death

Facebook has recently changed its privacy policy for deceased users’ accounts.   Prior to this change, upon a friend or family member’s request, and upon confirmation that the user had actually passed away, Facebook would restrict the deceased user’s account so only “friends” could view the “memorial” page.  In order to respect the choices a Facebook user makes while still alive, Facebook will now continue to apply, after the user’s death, the privacy settings the user chose while alive.

When I first read about this, I have to admit I thought it was a little creepy.  I’m not sure that I would want my Facebook page to live on after I die, or if I would want random people to be able to look at a deceased family member or friend’s Facebook page.  However, after surfing the Internet for more information about this, I came upon a Huffington Post blog that opened my eyes to the benefit of this new Facebook policy.

The author of the blog, Jordi Lippe, discussed how, after her father passed away tragically, she found herself visiting his Facebook page, posting on his wall, and tagging him in pictures more often than visiting his gravesite. Ms. Lippe didn’t find this to be creepy, as I had sensed it would be; rather, she looked at it as an opportunity to feel more connected to her father, to honor him, and to connect with all of the other people who missed and loved her father.

Various state legislatures are trying to figure out how to deal with digital assets.  For example, Virginia enacted a law enabling parents of deceased minors to obtain control of their child’s various online accounts.  After the parent assumes his or her child’s terms of service agreements, presumably, that parent can delete those accounts.

What are your thoughts? Is Facebook right in honoring a person’s privacy choices after he or she passes away?  Should minors using Facebook receive the same treatment after death, or are parents justified in wanting to take control of their child’s digital assets, including deleting or deactivating those accounts?  Would you want your Facebook page to be memorialized?