Recently we noted the phenomenon of phenomenally stupid law-breakers who “catch themselves,” like the Florida store robber who was arrested after posting photos of himself on Facebook brandishing a fistful of money along with a similar-looking gun and hat to the one picked up by the store’s surveillance camera during the robbery. Some folks are even drawing attention to themselves breaking the law in instances that would otherwise go undetected, like the Hawaiian genius who posted a video of himself cracking open and drinking a beer while driving, titled “Let’s Go Driving, Drinking” and – surprise! – was subsequently arrested for driving, drinking. It used to be said that “criminals always return to the scene of the crime,” and whether that truism was actually true or not, what is undeniable is that today there are a certain number of perpetrators, who, if they saw their face on a “Wanted” poster in the Post Office, would proudly stand next to it and announce to passersby, “That’s ME!”
“Stupid criminal stories” are funny because the perps generally wind up getting their comeuppance. Unfortunately, though, they’re not the only players in the criminal justice system abusing social media.
In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that Florida circuit court Judge Linda D. Schoonover, while presiding over a divorce proceeding, and before entering a final judgment, sent the wife in the case a Facebook “friend” request, which is mind-boggling in its cluelessness. It became public because the wife didn’t accept the request and notified her lawyer, who subsequently accused the judge of retaliating against the snub by issuing a ruling that left the wife assuming “most of the marital debt” while giving the husband “a disproportionately excessive alimony award.”
Upon which, an appellate court kicked Judge Schoonover off the case, concluding that the wife had a “well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”
Two things: 1) If the wife had accepted the judge’s request, it probably wouldn’t have come out. Also, since the judge was trying to “friend” the wife, it seems likely she wouldn’t have ruled so harshly against her if the wife had been amenable to the request. For all we know, this judge (as well as others) has done this before.
2) When a judge exhibits this level of head-shaking lack of judgment, are they really fit to judge, well, anything?
Which brings us to juries.
According to the New York Times, jurors have been caught polling Facebook friends for input on whether they should vote “Guilty” or “Not Guilty,” apparently confusing their role with that of a viewer watching “America’s Got Talent,” and forgetting that the difference between them and their Facebook friends is that they’ve been sitting in the courtroom for days listening to a little thing called “evidence.”
At least that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. The same article mentions jurors regularly tweeting during testimony and that some states are limiting the contact lawyers can have with jurors via social media outside the courtroom, including – Shades of Judge Schoonover – not “friending” them on Facebook.
That some states see this blatantly inappropriate behavior as so prevalent that they need to issue ordinances against it is almost as depressing as that all the other states either are blind to it happening, or don’t care.
Some judges are banning electronic devices in the courtroom and some states are forbidding jurors from engaging in “all forms of electronic communication” once a trial begins, which sounds like a good idea until you consider that if getting people to serve on juries was difficult before, forbidding them from sending emails and tweets for the duration of the trial is sure to push the remaining few willing to serve over the edge.
That’s not to say that electronic communications should have no role in the courthouse. One can imagine jurors being able to view electronic transcripts of the trial, and maybe even video replays of testimony. At the very least, all parties in the courtroom could have access to pertinent FAQ’s, the first two of which, I would suggest, should be:
WHY IS IT WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE FOR A JUDGE TO “FRIEND” A PARTY IN A CASE SHE’S HEARING?
And WHY SHOULDN’T MEMBERS OF THE JURY POLL THEIR FACEBOOK FRIENDS ABOUT THE VERDICT?