Social network sites leave a trail in court

By Mary Ann Cavazos

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Friday, April 23 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

CORPUS CHRISTI, Calif. — There's one question Corpus Christi attorney Eric Perkins makes sure to ask new clients.

"If I Google your name, what am I going to find?" Perkins asks.

The reason is simple: Material on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace could help his clients or spell disaster.

He has seen a lot, from lurid photos to YouTube videos posted by people who thought it was fun to chronicle their party lifestyle.

To avoid surprises, he does an Internet search of his clients' names and often the other parties in his cases.

State District Judge Bobby Galvan said attorneys are using that type of cyber evidence more and more, especially in family law cases.

"I've seen (pictures of) people using drugs in front of their kids," Galvan said. "That's strong evidence. … The crazy part is these people posted it themselves."

In many instances, one parent has used online photos from the other parent's profile page to show bad behavior or argue the parent is unfit.

Even with privacy settings on some sites, it's no guarantee the material won't end up in court, said David A. Anderson, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

Anderson, a contributing editor for Texas Monthly, said people post photos of themselves drunk or half-naked not thinking about who may see it.

"They don't think about it," Anderson said. "There's no restrictions on its use."

Perkins said in some ways it has been an asset. He recently downloaded photos in one custody and divorce case he plans to use that show underage drinking at a family outing.

In custody cases, photos like those easily could be used as a negotiation tool.

Some people simply decide to settle to avoid the embarrassment of having photos or other information such as online profanity-laced tirades against an ex read in court, Perkins said.

"It's a blessing or curse depending on if you're using it or if it's being used against you," Perkins said. "(But) it's almost never good."

For law enforcement, social-networking sites, which boast millions of users, have become one more tool in a crime-fighting arsenal.

Local graffiti vandals who proudly post their exploits online have found it used against them in court.

But criminal defense attorney Gerald Rogen said he has used it to discredit witnesses. In a child sex abuse case, he found the profile of the parent of a child who accused his client.

The site had photos that showed adults drinking in front of children, simulated sex acts and a cake with an image of male genitalia. That could allow him to question where a child picked up sexual references.

"It's a good way to check up on people," Rogen said.

Such evidence also has been used in murder cases.

Jose Cardenas, one of four convicted last year in a June 19, 2008, fatal shooting during a brawl on Booty Street, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for the killing.

Prosecutors showed jurors photos and postings from Cardenas' MySpace page. One photo showed him posed with stolen guns from an unrelated burglary. Postings had references to Cardenas being a gangster, profanity and a picture of a marijuana plant.

Defense attorney Hector Rene Gonzalez, who represented Cardenas, said he fought to keep out the postings, which may become an appellate issue.

"That really set a different stage," he said. "We see it all the time now. It's an instrument used by the state and they're using it effectively."

Gonzalez said that means as a defense attorney he always has to be on guard.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS