Online revenge can now mean felony conviction

Chad West and Laura Martin

Local officials stepping up enforcement of new Internet harassment law targeting those who harass, impersonate others online

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Dallas police and the Dallas County District Attorney’s office have begin stepping up enforcement of a 2009 Internet harassment law that makes it a felony to impersonate, imitate or otherwise harass others in e-mails, instant messaging programs and commercial social networking sites.

And some gay men who use online dating and social media sites are getting caught in the crosshairs.

“Word is getting out about the law,” Dallas LGBT police liaison Laura Martin said, adding that she’s spoken to a number of people who have been harassed with phone calls, Internet posts and fake Facebook pages.

“It usually happens when a relationship ends,” Martin said, “[when] someone is seeking revenge.”

She said that usually the person filing the complaint just wants the harassment to stop. And when she’s made calls to the person, Martin said, it usually does stop.

But with the new Texas Penal Code 33.07, those using such sites to harass someone could be charged with a felony.

Since the beginning of July, criminal defense attorney Chad West said he has signed four new clients charged under the law. Three of them are gay.

The cases are varied. One involves harassment through a Facebook page; another is a “text message situation,” West said.

West said one of his clients had been dating a closeted man for years. When the closeted man broke off the relationship, the two remained in touch for awhile, but then the closeted man wanted to cut off all communication.

West said his client told him his feelings had been hurt by his ex’s actions and then “one night he did something stupid.”

On Craigslist, the client posted his ex’s first name, last initial and cell phone number with a picture of someone else. Within minutes the ex began receiving calls.

After talking to one of the callers, the victim found the page on Craigslist, printed it off and filed a complaint with the police who tracked the IP address.

West’s client, with nothing prior on his record other than speeding tickets, was arrested and charged with a third degree felony. If convicted, he faces two to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In another case, one man was impersonating his boyfriend online. Using the victim’s passwords, he signed onto dating sites such as Manhunt to find out if the victim was cheating on him.

Cheating is not a crime. Impersonating someone else online in Texas is. And that man has now been charged with a felony.

Manhunt does what it can to prevent that sort of situation, Manhunt CEO Adam Segel said. A button on profiles allows a member to report fake or malicious profiles.

“Whenever Manhunt receives reports of harassment between users, we investigate to the best of our ability and take whatever steps are necessary to rectify the situation,” Segel said.

“This may include suspension or deletion of the offending user’s account,” he explained.

Segel said that Manhunt always cooperates with the police once officers have obtained a subpoena, but those instances are rare. “Fortunately this isn’t something we hear about very often,” he said.

West has spoken to the victims in all of the cases he represents. He said that all of them just want this to go away and that none seem interested in appearing in court to testify about intimate details of their lives.

And that’s the best hope West’s clients have.

Defending the charge is difficult when police have hard computer evidence of where the harassment originated and when a victim is willing to testify, West said.

The Craigslist case is furthest along and may be reduced to a Class A misdemeanor, but that still carries the possibility of up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Probation or deferred adjudication are possibilities as well. Even if dismissed, the legal fees can mount quickly.

West said one of the victims he spoke to isn’t interested in putting his ex in jail but wants him to get counseling. A judge could set that as a condition of the probation or deferred adjudication.

Katherine Robinson is an assistant Dallas district attorney who prosecutes Internet crimes. She said that her office looks at cases like these very carefully, but because the law is still new, she hasn’t seen any cases come to trial.

Robinson said the Texas law was prompted by a 2006 cyber-bullying case in Missouri.

Megan Meier, 13, took her own life after being told online that the world would be better off without her by “Josh,” a boy who friended her on MySpace.

“Josh” turned out to be Lori Drew, an adult woman. Megan was one of her daughter’s classmates.

However, Drew had not violated any criminal law at the time. She was charged and acquitted of violating the terms and conditions of MySpace under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Robinson said that after that case, legislatures started enacting stricter Internet harassment laws.

“That case hit home how devastating it can be,” Robinson said.

Assistant District Attorney Rick Watson has handled two cases under the Internet harassment law.

“I talk to the victim, balance what they want and make sure the public is safe,” he said.

In one case, a high school student created a Facebook page with another student’s information and made threatening remarks.

The student received four years probation but only after a psych evaluation to make sure he was not a danger.

Watson said the student thought he was pulling a prank, and had no idea he would be charged with a felony.

Watson said that although charges may be reduced, they’re not likely to be dismissed.

West warned that although these cases may eventually be pled to misdemeanors, the arrest and associated costs can be enormous. He said that the potential is a felony conviction and with all the attention placed on bullying last fall, Internet harassment is being taken seriously by law enforcement in Dallas.

And Dallas County is not the only place police are pursuing these cases. Of West’s four clients, only two are in Dallas. One is in Denton and another is in Collin County.

____________

TEXAS PENAL CODE

Sec. 33.07.  ONLINE HARASSMENT.

(a) A person commits an offense if the person uses the name or persona of another person to create a web page on or to post one or more messages on a commercial social networking site:

(1) Without obtaining the other person’s consent; and

(2) With the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person.

(b) A person commits an offense if the person sends an electronic mail, instant message, text message, or similar communication that references a name, domain address, phone number, or other item of identifying information belonging to any person:

(1) without obtaining the other person’s consent;

(2) with the intent to cause a recipient of the communication to reasonably believe that the other person authorized or transmitted the communication; and

(3) with the intent to harm or defraud any person.

(c) An offense under Subsection (a) is a felony of the third degree. An offense under Subsection (b) is a Class A misdemeanor, except that the offense is a felony of the third degree if the actor commits the offense with the intent to solicit a response by emergency personnel.

(d) If conduct that constitutes an offense under this section also constitutes an offense under any other law, the actor may be prosecuted under this section, the other law, or both.

(e) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the actor is any of the following entities or that the actor’s conduct consisted solely of action taken as an employee of any of the following entities:

(1) a commercial social networking site;

(2) an Internet service provider;

(3) an interactive computer service, as defined by 47 U.S.C. Section 230;

(4) a telecommunications provider, as defined by Section 51.002, Utilities Code; or

(5) a video service provider or cable service provider, as defined by Section 66.002, Utilities Code.

(f) In this section:

(1) “Commercial social networking site” means any business, organization, or other similar entity operating a website that permits persons to become registered users for the purpose of establishing personal relationships with other users through direct or real-time communication with other users or the creation of web pages or profiles available to the public or to other users. The term does not include an electronic mail program or a message board program.

(2) “Identifying information” has the meaning assigned by Section 32.51.

—  John Wright

2011 Readers Voice Awards: Services

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PARTNERS IN CRIME (AND REALTY) | Chad West, left, and Brian Bleeker, who are a couple, were both winners in their respective categories. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

BEST CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY
Chad West

614 N. Bishop Ave., Suite 2
Open Monday–Friday at 8:30 a.m.
214-509-7555
ChadWestLaw.com

 

BEST REAL
ESTATE AGENT
Brian Bleeker

Hewitt and
Habgood Realty
2828 Routh St.,
Suite 100.
Call for appointment.
214-303-1133
DavePerryMiller.com

Imagine being in the West-Bleeker household today. There’s probably a ticker-tape parade happening right now on their street owing to the one-two punch that saw Chad West voted as the city’s top criminal attorney and his partner, Brian Bleeker, honored as the best Realtor. Forget Brangelina or Bennifer: Dallas Voice readers have gone and taken a power couple and made them even more powerful. (BleeWest? Or Chian? We’ll keep working on it.) That’s OK — these guys are both at the top of their games and they deserve the accolades. Plus, you never know when you may need one or both of them on your side. Picture this scenario for a second: You walk outside to get the morning paper, the front door closes on your robe and rips it off your body. There you are, standing half-naked on your porch as a school bus full of children passes by. When the lewd conduct charges start rolling in, you’re going to need a good criminal attorney (Chad, of course!), then when word spreads through the neighborhood that there’s a pervert on the block, it’s time to hire an real estate agent (Brian!) to sell your house so you can start over some place where nobody knows who you are. And he can probably even find you a house where the front doors don’t automatically lock behind you.

— Steven Lindsey


PILLOW TALK | Aaron Duke’s eye for sleek, contemporary style made him the favorite decorator in town. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

BEST INTERIOR DESIGNER
Aaron Duke

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Call for appointment
469-231-4438

Aaron Duke, a young and buzzed-about designer, says in his design philosophy statement that “interior design should create an emotional response from all who enter the space.” But if that response is the wrong kind of gasp, with hands covering mouth, then chances are you’ve done something wrong. And you might want to consider a new designer, such as Duke. What we like about his portfolio is that he’s not afraid of bold choices, but they’re always clean and sleek, and more importantly, never cold. He’s known for sophisticated interiors, and excels at handsome but comfortable contemporary looks. And like any good designer, he gives the customer what is wanted, without compromising his own aesthetic. We know a few stuff-loving queens who need to call him, stat.

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BEST CIVIL ATTORNEY
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Although Rebecca Covell won the award for best civil or family law attorney, she points out that she’s not a divorce lawyer but someone who does wills, estates — keeping families together, she explains, not pulling them apart. That’s the kind of low-key, problem-solving approach that Covell says gets her thank-you notes more than hate mail. One client recently told her, “This is the first time I’ve ever felt good writing a check to a lawyer.” There are civil-law attorneys, and there are attorneys who know how to be civil. Covell does both — but it’s the latter that has won her so many fans.

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AN INSURANCE AGENT WHO REALLY IS A GOOD NEIGHBOR
Steven Graves

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Since opening his agency in 1995, Steven Graves has not only specialized in getting the best coverage for his customers, but in giving back to them and the broader community. From helping Heath Services of North Texas get new computers, office furniture and personal care products donated to filling the last 30 requests from the Leather Knights Angel Tree at Dallas Eagle (buying everything from MP3 players to watches and gift cards) to sponsoring Youth First Texas and the Texas Bear Round-Up, he insures a better Dallas for everyone. “You have to give back to the community,” Graves says. “Support those who support you.”

— David Taffet

 

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The Make Ready Group

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Prime Lending (Ron Watterson)

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Melanie “Angel” Irvin

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Chase Bank

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The Nail Spa

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Clint Thompson

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1 Conx Internet Services

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

AIDS Arms announces board officers, new development director

CALL TO ARMS | John Loza, center, heads the new board of AIDS Arms. Also shown, from left, Jesse Garcia, Ken Morris, Loza, David Pass and Dennis Felhman (courtesy AIDS Arms)

Agency focusing on capital campaign to fund new clinic,  continue to provide client services

From Staff Reports
editor@dallasvoice.com

Officials with AIDS Arms this week announced the hiring of a new director of development and the election of officers for the agency’s board of directors for 2011.

Attorney and former Dallas City Council member and former Deputy Mayor Pro Tem John Loza was elected as chairman of the AIDS Arms board. Other board officers are David Pass as vice chair and Ken Morris as second vice chair. Dennis Felhman was re-elected as treasurer, and Jesse Garcia was re-elected as secretary.

The board officers are tasked with overseeing the funding and stewardship of the agency during the expansion of medical care services, including a new clinic that is expected to open this summer.

Loza, who works as a criminal defense attorney, holds a degree in government from Harvard University and a law degree from Southern Methodist University.

Pass has a bachelor’s degree in science from Indiana University, and a master’s degree in health administration master’s degree in information management from Washington University in St. Louis. He is a senior account executive with Aetna.

Fehlman, serving his third year as treasurer, is a senior vice president at Comerica Bank. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting from Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Garcia, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, has a bachelor’s degree in communications arts from Our Lady of the Lake University, and a master’s degree in communications arts from St. Mary’s University.

The new development director is Don Macey, a native Dallasite who recently returned to the area after holding senior development positions with the American Cancer Society, the Arthritis Foundation and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

“We are very pleased to have Dan Macey join AIDS Arms. His knowledge of health care, the needs of HIV-positive people and a close connection to the Dallas area will be beneficial to our vision and goals for increasing access to quality HIV care and support for our community,” Loza said.

“We have much to accomplish in combating the HIV epidemic on behalf of our clients, and we know Dan will add great value to that effort,” he added.

According to a statement released by AIDS Arms, Macey is tasked with “increasing awareness for the needs of both HIV-positive and high-risk individuals in the community by building the resources required to continue providing medical care, case management, HIV prevention and testing and many other programs.”

Macey’s primary focus will be the Call to Arms Campaign to pay for the new 15,000-square-feet outpatient medical care clinic for people with HIV. He will work with his team, including Sheila Bryant and Karen Campbell, and with the board of directors and

AIDS Arms Executive Director Raeline Nobles toward that goal.

AIDS Arms provides HIV testing and prevention services, case management, community education and support services to more than 7,000 people a year within a 10-county area in North Texas.

The agency also operates The Peabody Health Center, which is the only private, nonprofit HIV outpatient medical facility in Dallas, and the only community-based AIDS clinical research site in Texas for the National Institutes of Health.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 28, 2011.

—  John Wright