Criminal Law

Social Networks at Work in the Courtroom

Social network sites are all the rage today. Practically everyone knows what Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are and how to use them for entertainment. But they're not just for fun anymore. These social networks and media have found their way into courtrooms and other legal areas.

Social What?

If case you've never been to one or if you don't have children, "social networking" web sites are online meeting places where people share pictures, videos and stories about themselves and others. Some of the most popular sites talked about are Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter.

These sites and others are very popular with teenagers, but millions of people from college-age to middle-age use them. They're popular for their entertainment value. You can get instant access to all kinds of pictures, videos and stories about strangers you've never met or "friends" you've met online. Many people post things to the site to express their views or ideas, while others post things that they think are funny or amusing.

In the Legal Realm

It's not all fun and games anymore, though. As some recent and rather interesting stories show, social networking sites have found their way into the courtrooms and police departments. And not because they're being sued - although that happens from time to time. Rather, it's because millions of people use them and so there's all kinds of information about them floating around that anyone can see and use - for good or for bad.

Getting Sued

Facebook recently caused a stir in a federal civil lawsuit in Maine. A fisherman was killed when the boat he and others were on sank. His widow and two surviving crew members (the "plaintiffs") claimed the boat's owners were negligent and asked for more than $400,000 in damages.

The jury returned a returned a verdict for the boat owners. Several days later, one of the jurors sent an email to the plaintiffs' attorney. It stated that the plaintiffs had posted things on the internet indicating that they liked using certain illegal drugs and drinking alcohol. The juror found this information on at least one of the plaintiff's Facebook pages.

The attorney filed a motion for new trial arguing that the juror ignored the judge's instructions not to do any internet research on the case or the parties during the trial and his misconduct made the trial unfair to the plaintiffs. The judge investigated the matter and found, however, that the juror found the information after the trial and the trial was not unfair to the plaintiffs.

Getting Arrested

Adam Bauer is a 19-year old student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and a big fan of Facebook. Not long ago, he made a new "friend" on the web site - an attractive young lady - and shortly after, he was asked to visit the local police station. When he did, an officer showed him pictures from Facebook of him holding a beer.

Bauer got a ticket for underage drinking. He pled "no contest" (or "nolo contendere") and paid a $227 fine. Several others reported that they too had been cited for underage drinking based on photos on social networking sites.

Getting Off the Hook

Rodney Bradford is another 19-year old Facebook fan. In October 2009, he was arrested during an investigation of a mugging in Brooklyn, New York. Bradford claimed he didn't do the crime and claimed that he was at his father's house in Harlem, New York, at the time of the mugging. As proof, he offered his date- and time-stamped FaceBook "update."

The prosecution asked Facebook to confirm the information. The website reported that the update was created from a computer at Bradford’s father's home. The charges against Bradford were then dropped.

The Lesson?

The "old" warnings about protecting your private information while surfing the net and using social networks are still valid. Add to those warnings the types of information, photos, and stories you post. Sometimes a picture or opinion you think is amusing may lead to trouble. Used properly, though, they can be a great source of entertainment, and may even get you out of some trouble.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • When can the police get access to the "hidden" records and files that the web sites like Facebook and Myspace keep?
  • I was given a ticket for underage drinking because of a picture a friend posted on his Facebook page. I'm in the picture, but I wasn't drinking at the party. Should I pay the ticket? Does pleading guilty or no contest mean I'll have a criminal record?
  • I've been accused of a crime, and I have cell phone text message records and voice mail records showing that I was not in the area at the time. Are these records good enough to get the charges dropped?
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