Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cyber Stalkers Beware

"Facebook usage depicts a snapshot of the user's relationships and state of mind at the time of the content's posting."
-- U.S. District Judge Janet Arterton

The Cool Justice Report
Nov. 17, 2009

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com

Computer social networking has coined a new type of crime: cyber stalking.

Information on where the user lives, phone numbers, schools attended, friends and activities can give the potential stalker a personal road map. Add to that a bevy of pictures, sometimes displaying the Facebooker wasted at some frat party or describing some other social excesses. What emerges is a profile of a potential victim.

Users can limit who may access their private information by allowing access only to "friends." Friends are people who have requested access to you and whom you approve. Information can be published only for friends but Facebook allows "Friends of friends" to access your pages. You cannot control this expansion of your cyber universe.

Future employers, your boss, your teacher and your parents can often gain access to what you believe is a side of you that you are sharing with a limited few. Routinely, in litigation we are seeking information on social networking sites about potential witnesses and adversaries. Cyber stalkers gain access to this wealth of personal information that feeds their obsessions and empowers their eventual access to their intended victims.

Recently cases have been reported where cyber stalkers have been sued or prosecuted as a result of vicious, demeaning posts. In Connecticut it is a crime to use a computer to harass or threaten another:

"Sec. 53a-183. Harassment in the second degree: Class C misdemeanor. (a) A person is guilty of harassment in the second degree when . . . with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person, he communicates with a person by . . . computer network, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm. . . ."

If the cyber stalker has a previous serious felony conviction the level of crime is elevated to Harassment int he First Degree, a five year felony.

Victims are now striking back and seeking production of social network posts and pages.

In a recent federal lawsuit in Connecticut, U.S. District Judge Janet Arterton ordered the production of more than 650 pages of Facebook posts. The minor plaintiff had sued Miss Porter's School of Farmington claiming that she had been the victim of harassment and bullying that led to her suspension and an attempt to expel her. Her alleged taunters had reportedly used text messaging and internet posts.

The plaintiff subpoenaed pages from her own Facebook account that she could no longer access and the defendants sought an order that all of the Facebook pages be produced, asserting that those posts would reveal information describing the plaintiff's own conduct. In ordering the production of most of these pages to the defense, Judge Arterton observed: "Facebook usage depicts a snapshot of the user's relationships and state of mind at the time of the content's posting."

Criminal sanctions and civil damages await the cyber stalker or reckless posts. Users, and especially parents of youngsters permitted access to these sites, should understand that comments posted in the seeming safety of one's study or dorm room that are thrown out to the cyber universe are there for all to see, for all time.

Bridgeport,CT attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan has been certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organization's Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on TruTv. His column also appears in the Sunday Norwich, CT Bulletin. Website, www.meehanlaw.com

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