Post Carefully: Social Media Now Being Used in Court Cases

For anyone who thought the worst thing social media could do was help turn an embarrassing photo into an Internet meme that would haunt you the rest of your life, think again, Twitter fan. It could also cost you in court.

Such is the case in a recent trial where a woman was found almost entirely liable in a collision thanks to her, wait for it, MySpace page. That's right, the things she wrote on her MySpace page helped sway a jury that she was likely more responsible than the other party in the case. It might be tempting to joke about the use of MySpace in general, but this has some rather ominous implications.

"That happens all the time," Stephanie Stradley, a criminal defense attorney, told Hair Balls. "All your social media stuff will be picked over with a fine-toothed comb."

According to a press release, this particular case is being dubbed the "MySpace case" in some circles and points to the fact that evidence culled from Web sites can be damaging in court. Such is the case of Vonda Barnhart, who was sued by Luis Perez after he was struck by Barnhart while standing on the side of the road near a friend's car that had broken down.

Defense counsel denied Barnhart was intoxicated, with the defense toxicology expert testifying there was no proper chain of custody for the blood sample used in the test and the hospital reported Barnhart had normal neurological findings and alertness. The plaintiffs' toxicology expert testified the hospital's clinical testing procedures were sound and the alertness and neurological findings were consistent with Barnhart being a heavy drinker with a tolerance for alcohol. Plaintiff's counsel produced printouts of Barnhart's MySpace page with entries before and after the collision which included references to regular alcohol use, her good friend Captain Morgan (rum), and frequent hangovers.

In the end the jury found Barnhart 95 percent liable for the collision and the plaintiffs 5 percent liable, and that Barnhart had been grossly negligent. The plaintiffs were awarded $608,212.

And it gets worse. According to Stradley, social media and even texts and photos from your cell phone are used every day in courts, particularly in family court. Imagine an angry spouse twisting that photo of you drinking with your friends into your being an unfit parent, as an example.

It is common knowledge that employers use social networking profiles to gain information on prospective employees, but the worst consequence in those situations is the loss of a job. The wrong thing posted online or on your phone could come back to haunt you. In fact, anything you have said or that has been said to you, any photos you post or photos sent to you, could be used against you in court, even if they don't reflect your actual personality or interests.

"A lot of things that might be innocuous and might have innocuous explanations, in the context of an adversarial trial might look ugly," Stradley said.

I've pointed out in this blog that what you post online will likely remain there in some shape or form no matter if you continue to be active or not, so it is important to be careful in what you decide to put on the Internet. But it goes well beyond just being embarrassed in front of friends and family or potentially losing out on a job thanks to a picture of you shotgunning a beer. As we've seen in countless cases including the defacing of a Picasso painting at the Menil, what you post online can hurt you.

Moreover, what you have on your phone can as well. Most of us are conditioned to believe that text messages and photos are private, but not if a court order is involved. If that happens, information you may consider innocent can suddenly be spun into something far more serious. A sexual or racial image or text could be turned into a way to damage credibility or impugn someone's character.

What's worse is that most people never even think about how what they post online or text to friends could come back to them.

"There are a lot of people who get in trouble who never thought they would get in trouble," Stradley said, "and the social media stuff can be used against them."

Bottom line: Be very careful what you put online or send to friends. It could cost you more than a job.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke