Court: privacy on social networking sites is wishful thinking

Defendant is permitted access to plaintiff’s social networking accounts as part of discovery in personal injury case.

Romano v. Steelcase Inc., — N.Y.S.2d —, 2010 WL 3703242 (N.Y.Sup. September 21, 2010)

Plaintiff sued defendant for personal injury that allegedly caused her to lose her enjoyment of life. During discovery, plaintiff refused to voluntarily turn over the contents of her Myspace and Facebook accounts. So defendant filed a motion to compel plaintiff to consent to having Facebook and MySpace turn over all current and deleted content from the accounts. (That consent was necessary because without it, the sites would violate the Stored Communications Act.) The court granted the motion to compel.

The court found that the information contained in the profiles was “material and necessary” to the case. In drawing its conclusion, the court dispensed with any notion that a user’s privacy settings should affect the analysis. Denying defendant access to the information, the court found, would not only go against New York’s policy favoring liberal discovery, but “would condone Plaintiff’s attempt to hide relevant information behind self-regulated privacy settings.” Plaintiff had put her physical condition at issue, so it was fair for defendant to get evidence that may contradict the assertions of injury.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that disclosure of the information would violate her right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Fatal to any assertion of privacy was the fact that plaintiff had voluntarily made her information available on the sites. The court looked to earlier New York cases dealing with email to find that plaintiff had no expectation of privacy in the social networking data.

And the court made a sweeping declaration about the state of online privacy that is worth noting. Quoting from a law review article, the court observed that in the social media environment, “privacy is no longer grounded in reasonable expectations, but rather in some theoretical protocol better known as wishful thinking.”

That bogus social networking profile can send you to jail

Facebook

Clear v. Superior Court, 2010 WL 2029016 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. May 24, 2010)

The California Court of Appeal has held that a man who set up a bogus MySpace profile of his former church pastor can stand trial for criminal “personation.”

The defendant’s alleged conduct that might really put him on the hook is what he did after setting up the profile: he posted content that suggested the pastor used drugs and was gay. Because this could have resulted in the pastor losing his job, the court found the statute prohibiting personation of another might have been violated (that question will be resolved at trial unless there’s a plea deal).

The criminal personation statute (Penal Code Sec. 529) has an intriguing framework for liability. Apparently it’s not enough just to say you’re someone else. To be liable you’ve got to actually do something while assuming that persona that would subject your target to some kind of legal harm.

For example, just saying to the cops that you’re someone else, that you have that persons birthday and even responding affirmatively to whether you have their middle name apparently isn’t enough to violate the statute. People v. Cole, 23 Cal.App.4th 1672 (1994).

But using your sister’s name when you get a traffic ticket and also forging her signature on the citation isn’t allowed. People v. Chardon, 77 Cal.App.4th 205 (1999).

All the reason not to set up that Facebook profile of your boss and populate it with tales of crystal meth and kiddie porn.


Image by Balakov under this Creative Commons license.

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MySpace posting was not improper character evidence at murder trial

Clark v. State, No. 43S00-0810-CR-575 (Ind. October 15, 2009). [Download the opinion]

Defendant Clark killed his girlfriend’s two-year-old daughter. At his murder trial, the prosecution introduced the following post Clark had made to his MySpace page:

Society labels me as an outlaw and criminal and sees more and more everyday how many of the people, while growing up, and those who judge me, are dishonest and dishonorable. Note, in one aspect I’m glad to say I have helped you people in my past who have done something and achieved on the other hand, I’m sad to see so many people who have nowhere. to those people I say, if I can do it and get away. Bullshit. And with all my obstacles, why the fuck can’t you.

Clark was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He sought review with the Indiana Supreme Court. On appeal, the court affirmed the conviction.

One of the arguments Clark raised on appeal was that the trial court committed error when it allowed the jury to consider the MySpace posting. He claimed that it was improper character evidence under Indiana Rule of Evidence 404(b) which provides in relevant part:

Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.

The Supreme Court held that Rule 404(b) did not apply because “[i]t was Clark’s words and not his deeds that were at issue.” The posting was “solely evidence of [Clark’s] own statements, not of prior criminal acts.”

Moreover, Clark had made an issue of his character when he testified in his own defense. One theme of his testimony was that he had acted recklessly, and that had he intended to kill the victim he would have done more to conceal the crime. The court held that the bravado exhibited in the MySpace posting (in conjunction with a statement Clark had made to a detective upon his arrest, namely, “I will fucking kick your ass. I will send the Hell’s Angels to kill you. Fuck it. It’s only a C felony. I can beat this.”) was probative in that it countered his argument of “mere” recklessness.

Conviction for sending intimidating MySpace message overturned

Marshall v. State, 2009 WL 2243467 (Ind. App. July 28, 2009)

Gotta love the facts of this case from my home state of Indiana.

Marshall and Goodman traded cars with one another, but that deal went sour. Marshall then got into an altercation with Goodman’s mother (named Lee) and Marshall was arrested. She was also ordered to have no contact with either Goodman or Lee. Three days after her arrest, Marshall sent the following (redacted) private message through MySpace to Goodman:

Dont think that you are gonna get away from this s***. you can’t hide forever and one of these days when you are out and about … you know thy aint going to pin nothing on me. Cant prove s***. aint gonna and I am just waiting for that day. You want a war? ? ? Your gonna get it now f*****. I don’t know YET who told you the s*** in my blogs or was feedin you info on me but you can rest assured that I am gonna f*** them uptoo when I found out. And I WILL find out. The s*** aint done and you better know that. Its only a matter of time.

The b**** you know I can be.

(Ed. note: stay classy, Ms. Marshall!)

Based on this message, Marshall was convicted of felony intimidation against Lee. The prosecution had argued that Marshall committed this crime by communicating a threat to knowingly injure Lee, with the intent that Lee be placed in fear of retaliation for calling the police.

Marshall sought review of her conviction with the Indiana Court of Appeals. On appeal, the court reversed the conviction.

The court held that the prosecution failed to prove its allegations of intimidation against Lee, because the message was sent to Goodman’s ( and not Lee’s) MySpace account. Even though an intimidating communication may be indirect, the state had to prove that Marshall must have known or had reason to know that her communication would reach Lee. In this case, there was no such proof.

The MySpace message was not addressed to Lee, nor was she mentioned by name. Accordingly, there was no evidence that Marshall knew or had reason to know that Goodman would show the message to his mother.

Photo courtesy Flickr user subewl under this Creative Commons license.

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