Sexy MySpace photos stay out of evidence

Webb v. Jessamine County Fiscal Court, 2011 WL 3652751 (E.D. Ky. August 19, 2011)

Plaintiff filed a civil rights lawsuit against the local jail and other governmnet officials after she gave birth while incarcerated. She claimed, among other things, that the jail’s failure to get her proper medical care before and during the delivery caused her extreme humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress.

The defendants tried an extremely bizarre and highly questionable tactic — they sought to use provocative photos purportedly copied from plaintiff’s MySpace profile, to demonatrate that it is “less probable that [plaintiff] would experience humiliation and mental anguish by being in a jail cell while delivering a baby.” Defendants claimed that the photos were “of such a nature that a reasonable person would be embarrassed if such photographs were placed in public view.”

In other words, defendants argued that because plaintiff would post photos like that of herself online, she did not have the dignity to be free from being ignored or called a child and a liar during labor.

The court granted plaintiff’s motion in limine, excluding the photos from evidence. It found that the photos were irrelevant:

Although the appearance of provocative photos online may cause some humiliation, it bears no relation at all to the extreme humiliation and mental anguish a woman forced to go through labor on her own in a jail cell would bring.

The court also found that the defendants had not properly authenticated the photos, i.e., had not provided enough supporting evidence to show that they actually were of plaintiff. The photos that the defendants offered bore “no indicia of authenticity, such as a web address or a photo of these images on the public MySpace account from which Defendants claim they originated.”

Court dismisses class action against MySpace for violation of the Stored Communications Act

Hubbard v. MySpace, 2011 WL 2149456 (S.D.N.Y. June 1, 2011)

Plaintiff, who sued on behalf himself and others similarly situated, claimed that MySpace improperly turned over account information and private messages to law enforcement, even though there was a search warrant. Plaintiff claimed this violated the Stored Communications Act, 18 USC 2701 et seq.

MySpace moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.

The version of the Stored Communications Act in effect at the time of the alleged wrongful disclosure in this case provided that a search warrant seeking the information must issue from a federal court “with jurisdiction over the offense under investigation,” or be “an equivalent State warrant.”

Plaintiff argued that the warrant sent to MySpace was not sufficient under the SCA (and should have been ignored) because (1) the state magistrate did not have jurisdiction to hear the felony that the cops were investigating plaintiff for, and (2) the magistrate did not have the power to issue search warrants across state lines.

The court rejected both of these arguments. In determining the warrant to be “an equivalent State warrant,” it looked to the way federal magistrates issue warrants in SCA cases. It held that the phrase “jurisdiction over the offense under investigation” refers to the power to issue warrants, not to the power to ultimately try the case. And the court looked to the legislative history around the Patriot Act amendments to conclude that SCA investigations give magistrate judges special powers to direct search warrants across state lines, because having to require cooperation with the courts in which an ISP actually exists might allow enough time for a terrorist to get away or strike again.

This case is worth noting for the wide scope the court establishes for valid search warrants under the SCA. It is also worth noting that the SCA has since been amended to make the scope more clearly this broad. 

MySpace evidence was inadmissible hearsay

Musgrove v. Helms, 2011 WL 1225672 (Ohio App. 2 Dist. April 1, 2011)

An Ohio domestic relations court ordered an ex-wife to pay her ex-husband child support. Based on evidence that the ex-wife’s income had increased, the court increased the amount of support she had to pay. One of the pieces of evidence the court relied on was information from the ex-wife’s MySpace page where she had stated her income was “less than $30,000.” (This comported with other evidence suggesting her income was around $29,000).

The ex-wife sought review of the order increasing child support with the appellate court. On appeal, the court found the MySpace page to be inadmissible hearsay, and vacated that portion of the order.

The finding turned on a nuance of the rules of evidence pertaining to hearsay. Generally, hearsay is inadmissible as evidence, but there are exceptions. One of the exceptions is statements made by the declarant that are against her interest. The court found that although the MySpace information was used in a way adverse to the ex-wife’s interest (i.e., to increase her support obligation), as a declaration it was not adverse to her interest because it was not an assertion of fact which was by its nature contrary to her interest.

So this case is a reminder that notwithstanding any increased interest in the discoverability of social media evidence, the rules in place may serve to render the information discovered ultimately useless later in the litigation.

Debt collector broke the law by using MySpace photo to intimidate consumer

Sohns v. Bramacint, 2010 WL 3926264 (D.Minn. October 1, 2010)

Plaintiff fell behind on her car payments. The lender turned the debt over to a collection agency that used technology and some remarkably poor judgment in an attempt to get paid.

The first bad decision was to use a caller-ID spoofer to make it look like the collection call was coming from plaintiff’s mother in law. The next not-smart use of technology was to access plaintiff’s MySpace page, learn that plaintiff had a daughter, and to use that fact to intimidate plaintiff. There was evidence in the record to suggest that the collection agency’s “investigator” said to plaintiff, after mentioning plaintiff’s “beautiful daughter,” something to the effect of “wouldn’t it be terrible if something happened to your kids while the sheriff’s department was taking you away?”

Plaintiff sued the debt collection agency under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The FDCPA sets some restrictions on how debt collectors can go about their business. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment. The court granted the motion.

It held that the collection agency engaged in conduct the natural consequence of which was to harass, oppress, or abuse in connection with the collection of the debt; used false, deceptive, or misleading representations or means in connection with the collection of the debt; and used unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect the debt.

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