The social networking site Facebook is a popular website for young people to chat and post photos, interacting with others of like mind. Employers have begun to use it as a source of information about prospective employees. And attorneys are using it as a source of information about defendants and witnesses.
When you post any text or photos at a site like Facebook, or MySpace, it’s a permanent record which can be accessed by anyone. When such photos are shown in court to illustrate a defendant’s behavior or attitudes, it can be not just embarrassing, but instrumental in persuading a judge to pass a harsher sentence.
Prosecutors are sometimes tipped off that a defendant is behaving in a disrespectful or contemptuous way towards the legal system and their own position as an accused. When photos or text are then found onsite that illustrate these attitudes, that defendant finds it hard to claim that they’re remorseful, or that they’re trying to mend their drunken ways, for instance.
Some recent cases
- A 20-year-old named Joshua Lipton in Rhode Island, charged with drunk driving and seriously injuring a young woman in a 3-car crash – he then attended a Halloween party dressed as a prisoner in black and white stripes and an orange jumpsuit saying “Jail Bird” on the jacket. Photos showed him partying with a young woman and sticking out his tongue at the camera. The prosecutor assembled a PowerPoint presentation for the sentencing hearing to illustrate what Lipton was doing while the injured woman was still in hospital. The judge called the photos “depraved” and sentenced Lipton to two years in prison.
- One Lara Buys aged 22 in California, charged with drunk driving which killed a passenger in her vehicle – posted jokes about drinking and photos of herself drinking wine which changed the prosecutor’s mind about sentencing. He had been willing to give her probation, but instead gave her two years in prison. He commented that she should have been in therapy, going to Alcoholics Anonymous, or in some program to learn about drunk driving.
- One Jessica Blinkerd, a college graduate in California, charged with fatal drunk driving – her defense lawyer urged her to take down her MySpace page. She didn’t. The prosecutor used photos from it in a presentencing report. She was shown with a beer bottle, wearing a shirt advertising tequila and a belt with dangling shot glasses. The judge gave her five years in prison.
The defense attorney for Lipton in Rhode Island claimed that the party photos didn’t accurately show his client’s character, but just showed “a kid who didn’t know what to do two weeks after this accident”.
However, it is quite legal for these “kids” to drink, and legal for them to drive.