First let’s be clear—I am not a lawyer! Yes, I’ve read a bit about law and legal theories. That does not make me a lawyer. Not even close. However, the story below raises questions in my mind. Is the act a violation of law or was the consequence of the act a violation of our 1st Amendment rights? You decide.
In Mesquite, TX, a man was found guilty of a drug violation. His girlfriend was skimming through Facebook and found a photo of the undercover cop involved in her friend’s drug case. She copied that photo and spread it around. She’s now been charged with “retaliation.” I’m unsure exactly what that means. I’ve not heard of an equivalent in Missouri.
Actions have consequences. We all know that. On the other hand, is it a crime to spread public information? The undercover cop’s photo on Facebook was, since it was publicly viewable, public information. If the cop did not want his photo passed around, why did he allow it to appear on Facebook? I don’t believe Facebook makes any guarantee of privacy.
From the other side, did the woman pass the photo around to “out” the undercover cop? Perhaps. Probably quite likely. Can that be a crime when the cop made no effort to conceal his face and appearance from the public? Good question.
I can see the woman being charged if the undercover cop did NOT allow his photo to appear on Facebook and the woman tracked him down and took a photo for the express purpose of exposing him. If that had been the train of events I could see a charge of retaliation being levied against her. But that is not what happened.
I doubt this story will make much news nor will it be followed by the MSM with all their legal pundits examining every iota of the tale. It is, however, a cautionary tale for all of us—do not place anything on the internet that we do not want anyone to know. There is no nor will there ever be any privacy on the internet.
October 15, 2012 6:40 AM
MESQUITE, Texas (CBS HOUSTON) – A North Texas woman has been arrested after being accused of posting Facebook photos of an undercover policeman who testified against her friend in court.
Mesquite police arrested Melissa Walthall, 30, for allegedly posting the photo of the officer, who authorities say recently testified in a drug case against her friend. Her Facebook post identified the person as an undercover officer, according to a federal affidavit.
After a caller tipped off Mesquite police to Walthall’s Facebook post about a week ago, an investigator found that it posed a “viable threat to that officer’s safety,” the affidavit said.
The Dallas Morning News reports that her friend, George Pickens, 34, was upset about the officer’s testimony and found his photograph on Facebook while researching him online.
Pickens’ brother, Bobby Stedham, used the photo to make fliers, and the two men planned to display them like garage sale signs, according to the affidavit. Police reported finding them while searching Pickens’ Dallas-area house.
Stedham, 26, has been charged with retaliation, and Pickens faces federal drug and weapons charges, based on items police reported finding during the search of his house, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Mitch Landry, the deputy executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association in Austin, said his organization has discussed with its members the perils of social media — particularly for those involved in undercover work.
“Our best advice is — if you don’t want that information out there, don’t have those accounts,” Landry told the newspaper. “There’s no way to be truly anonymous if you have a Facebook page.”
Many police departments have not yet developed social media policies and guidelines for their officers. The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, for example, has an electronic etiquette policy that prohibits such things as vulgar language or sending obscene messages. It does not address the use of social media.
Continued on the website…
I don’t know what policies our local police departments and Sheriff’s office may have. It would be very prudent for them to review those policies or if none exist, to create them to cover circumstances like this. In my mind, I would have difficulty finding the woman guilty of passing along public information. Did she go looking for it? Yes. But she did not take the photo herself. Nor did she physically stalk the officer to acquire a photo. She did what any of us could do in a few minutes online. My opinion is that the undercover cop should have no expectation of remaining anonymous when he allowed his photo to be uploaded to Facebook and then allowed it to remain there.
Any lawyers out there who’d like to present an opinion? I’m curious.