Chapter 4: Social Media Case Examples and Court Decisions
1. Request for user names and passwords granted: Zimmerman v. Weiss Markets
In the Zimmerman v. Weis Markets Inc. case, Zimmerman was an employee of a subcontractor of Weis Markets and was seeking damages for an injury that occurred at work. Zimmerman claimed that an accident seriously and permanently impaired his health. Weis Markets reviewed the public portions of Zimmerman’s Facebook and MySpace pages, and felt that there might be some additional information to refute the damage claims in the private sections of his profile.
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On the public portions of his profile, the company found photos of Zimmerman engaging in some of his favorite activities after the accident took place at work. They knew the photos were from after the accident because his scar from the accident was visible in the pictures.
The court ordered Zimmerman to hand over his passwords and login information to the counsel for Weis Markets so that they could access the private sections of his Facebook and MySpace accounts. The opinion released by the court said:
“Zimmerman voluntarily posted all of the pictures and information on his Facebook and MySpace sites to share with other users of these social network sites, and he cannot now claim he possesses any reasonable expectation of privacy to prevent Weis Markets from access to such information.
“By definition, a social networking site is the interactive sharing of your personal life with others; the recipients are not limited in what they do with such knowledge. With the initiation of litigation to seek a monetary award based upon limitations or harm to one’s person, any relevant, non-privileged information about one’s life that is shared with others and can be gleaned by defendants from the internet is fair game in today’s society.”
2. Facebook status update used to corroborate an alibi: The Rodney Bradford case
In another case, a New York teenager’s Facebook status update provided evidence that helped to keep him out of jail. The teen had been arrested for a mugging in Brooklyn. Despite his insistence that he wasn’t connected to the crime, the boy spent nearly two weeks in jail before his father discovered a Facebook status update he had made from his Harlem apartment one minute before the mugging, which was 12 miles away.
The boy’s father presented the Facebook evidence to the district attorney, who then went on to submit a subpoena to Facebook to verify the location from which the status update was made. The time stamp and the location were used as evidence to prove that the boy wasn’t at the scene of the crime. He was cleared of the charges based on the electronic evidence.
3. User name and password request denied: Arcq v. Fields
In this case, James Arcq was seeking damages because of an auto collision, claiming that the driver of the other vehicle, Robert Fields, was negligent. Arcq claimed that the accident resulted in an inability to participate in certain activities. The defendants in the case believed that Arcq had profiles on social media sites, and requested that user names and passwords to all of Arcq’s profiles be handed over. The defendant’s request was not made based on information obtained by viewing the public contents of Arcq’s social media profiles.
In the opinion document in the Arcq v. Fields case, the request to hand over social media username and passwords was denied because the defendant wasn’t able to show a valid reason to believe that there was relevant information on the plaintiff’s social media profiles. The opinion also mentioned that the defendants in the case didn’t seem sure that Arcq even had any social media accounts.
4. Evidence not properly authenticated: Griffin v. State of Maryland
In the Griffin v. State of Maryland case, Griffin had been charged with multiple counts in the death of a man at a bar. Prior to the trial, Griffin’s girlfriend allegedly threatened one of the witnesses on MySpace. The witness that was allegedly threatened gave two different versions of his story in the first and second trials, later explaining that there was a discrepancy in his stories because he was threatened prior to the first trial.
On the day after Griffin’s girlfriend testified, the State introduced pages that had been printed from a MySpace account. The account was in the name of “SISTASOULJAH” and had the same birthday and hometown as Griffin’s girlfriend. There was also a photo of a couple on the page, which counsel and the court agreed appeared to be a picture of Griffin and his girlfriend.
Defense objected to the use of the MySpace printouts in the case because Griffin’s girlfriend was never questioned about the MySpace account and whether or not it belonged to her. It could not be determined exactly when the message containing the threat was sent, and it also couldn’t be verified that Griffin’s girlfriend was the one who sent the message. It was argued that anyone could have set up that page and posted the threat.
The Maryland Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial the defendant’s murder conviction for the State’s failure to properly authenticate the MySpace pages. The court found the trial judge abused his discretion in attempting to authenticate the MySpace post through the lead investigator’s testimony only. The court found that the picture of the girlfriend, coupled with her birth date and location, were not sufficient to authenticate the printout.