Judged by Facebook
Posted Dec 1, 2009 8:29 PM CST
By Richard Acello
With social networkers busily constructing walls of information about themselves, it was only a matter of time before the courts took notice.
MySpace, Twitter and Facebook present ample opportunities for defendants, jurors, adjudicated offenders and even attorneys to blab, brag and leave hints about their activities, legal and otherwise. And a judge in Saginaw County, Mich., says that he uses social networking sites to keep track of adjudicated offenders under his jurisdiction.
“When I get a defendant going through the sentencing process,” says District Judge A.T. Frank, “if they’re 20- or 30-somethings, I’ll see if they have a MySpace or Facebook page and do a search of that.”
Frank, who has been on the county bench since 2006, occasionally finds information that leads him to take action. “On a couple of occasions we found they violated” terms of probation, he says. “In one case ... the probationer had a Facebook page and we found out that she posted a picture of her smoking a blunt”—a cigar hollowed out and filled with marijuana.
The use of information gleaned from social networking sites raises a raft of legal issues, not the least of which is whether it is admissible in court. Frank says it depends at what point in the process the information is used.
“Can its use be challenged? Not so much in sentencing, because there’s more leeway and it’s harder to challenge once they are adjudicated,” he says. “But they can have a hearing.”
If the information were to be presented as evidence to convict, as in a case where a minor is charged with possession of alcohol, the judge says he would likely consider it “a prior bad act and ... not allow it in.”