Local officials stepping up enforcement of new Internet harassment law targeting those who harass, impersonate others online
DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
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.