Internet Law

Domestic abuse law applies to online relationships, Massachusetts high court says

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Massachusetts’ top court says the state’s domestic abuse law applies to relationships developed online.

Despite the pronouncement, the Supreme Judicial Court held the law could not be used by a father seeking to prevent a meeting between his 16-year-old daughter and a 24-year-old British man. In Massachusetts, the age of consent is 16. The Associated Press and the Boston Globe reported on the March 13 decision.

Gregory James Compton pursued a relationship with the teen online after they met during the girl’s visit to London with her mother and grandmother in 2011, according to the opinion. They communicated via email, electronic messaging, Skype and Facebook. Compton called the teen “honey bee” and “my love,” asked about the age of consent, and made plans for a “sneaky sleepover” in an October visit to Boston.

The court said a restraining order wasn’t warranted because there was no indication that Compton planned to physically harm the teen, who was legally capable of consenting to intercourse. As a result of its ruling, the court said, there was no need to decide whether Compton and the teen were engaged in a “substantive dating relationship” within the meaning of the domestic abuse law. The court said it was deciding the issue anyway to provide guidance in future cases.

The court noted that the relationship between the minor and adult lasted three months and involved regular mutual communication, much of it in electronic real-time conversations. “The content of the conversations were intimate, reflected a mutual romantic relationship, and expressed a mutual desire to engage in sexual relations,” the court said. “In these circumstances, we conclude that a substantive dating relationship was established. If the defendant had threatened to harm the daughter (rather than seeking to engage in a consensual sexual relationship with her), [the statute] should be available to protect her.”

The court said its opinion “reflects the changing nature of relationships and, specifically, the fact that an increasing number of relationships, including ones involving teenagers, are being conducted electronically.”

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