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Departments : Point of Law

The Whole World is Watching

Your online missteps could cost you dearly.

September 17, 2009  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

At the same time that people are ranting and raving about governmental intrusion into their privacy, the Internet is exploding with millions of examples of individuals voluntarily sharing with the online world the most personal and intimate details of their lives and attitudes. Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and thousands of other social networking Websites carry information that can be accessed by criminals and their attorneys, as well as by employers.

Before law enforcement officers open up to the worldwide web, it's a good idea to think about the possible consequences. What's the worst that could happen?

You Could Lose an Arrest

In New York, a jury acquitted an ex-con on gun possession charges after the arresting officer was impeached by statements he had made on his Facebook page. The defense was that the officer used excessive force and then planted the gun on the defendant to create a justification for rough treatment. At trial, the officer was confronted with the fact that on his Facebook page, he listed his mood as "devious," claimed to be watching the movie "Training Day" as preparation for the case, and boasted that if an officer "is going to hit a cuffed suspect, at least get your money's worth."

After the acquittal, the officer acknowledged that the "not guilty" verdict was partially his fault, agreeing that the information he had posted on Facebook "paints a picture of a person who could be overly aggressive. You put that together, it's reasonable doubt in anybody's mind." The defense attorney labeled the officer's foolhardy Facebook postings "an outright gift to the defense."

Since this case, criminal defense attorneys everywhere now routinely scour the Internet, including the most popular social networking sites, to gather intelligence, embarrassing information, and potential impeachment ammunition on officers who are witnesses in upcoming trials, and who have been foolish enough to offer themselves up for sacrifice on the altar of bravado.

You Could Lose Your Job

An Indiana State Trooper unburdened himself of strong feelings he had about his job on his Facebook page. He described himself as a "garbage man" for cleaning up society's "trash," and said that if a homeless person attacked him with a spoon, "He'll probably wind up shot. These people should have died when they were young anyway. I'm just doing them a favor." Following a public uproar, the trooper resigned while under disciplinary investigation.

A San Diego officer was fired for offering sexually explicit videos for sale through an online auction site. In the videos, the officer appeared in scenarios depicting him as a uniformed policeman engaging in explicit conduct (although he did not wear his departmental uniform). For example, one video showed the officer issuing a citation, but then revoking it, undoing his uniform and masturbating.

After his dismissal for conduct unbecoming an officer, he sued the department, claiming an infringement of his First Amendment right of free expression, since his conduct occurred off duty. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ordered the lawsuit dismissed, upholding the department's right to fire an officer for behavior that casts the department in an unfavorable light and detracts from its public mission. The court said this:

"A government employee does not relinquish all First Amendment rights otherwise enjoyed by citizens just by reason of his or her employment. On the other hand, a governmental employer may impose certain restraints on the speech of its employees, restraints that would be unconstitutional if applied to the general public.

"This officer's 'expression' was widely broadcast, linked to his official status as a police officer, and designed to exploit his employer's image. The 'speech' in question was detrimental to the mission and functions of the employer. We have little difficulty in concluding that the City was not barred from terminating the officer by our First Amendment rulings." (City of San Diego v. Roe)

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

dickdewey @ 10/12/2009 10:26 AM

A timely article that should be shared with those "thinking" they want to get into policing. Young people are so apt to put their social life out there for everyone to see. Not smart. Be reserved and be prepared.

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