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.

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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

Defining Homes: Ask the Experts

As Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a number of other social networking sites are more and more prevalent in everyday life — professional and personal — we wondered whether the trend is effective as a marketing tool in the real estate industry as a marketing tool. Area agents put in their two cents worth on how the trend works, or doesn’t work, for them in their work.

Vice president of real estate services for Prudential, Steve Shatsky has presided over classes on the use of social networks in business. He discusses, at length, how the trend has worked for him and the strategies behind using the networks.

Now we’re just waiting for all of them to accept our friend requests.


Steve Habgood

Steve Habgood

Hewitt & Habgood Realty Group

Social networking is an important component of an overall marketing effort. It helps keep us connected with our friends, family and clients on a personal, individual level. We d

on’t use it to push all our new listings or open houses. It’s more of a pull marketing rather than push marketing effort. Brian Bleeker on our team is especially effective in using it to keep connected and informed about what’s going on in his circle of friends and clients.

Mike Grossman

Re/Max Urban

Social networking is not a tool to sell real estate in my opinion. It is an effective way to stay in “personal touch” with customers, clients, friends and acquaintances and to inform them of emerging trends, market conditions and updated information regarding real estate.

Jack Evans

Ellen Terry, a division of Ebby Halliday Real Estate

Just today, I received an invitation to join a new group: “Realtors on Facebook.” The purpose of the realtor group so far has been to let member Realtors know about new listings and buyer needs (looking for something that is not active on the market).

Bob McCranie

Texas Pride Realty

I have different fan pages for the 20 or so towns I work in. I advertise those pages and invite other people to put content on those pages. I get people who aren’t even friends to participate and solicit buyers and sellers.

Jere Becker

Jere Becker

Pinnacle Experts Group

For investment houses I am looking to sell or rent, I use it to market the property, especially now where there are so many buyers looking for seller financing and don’t use the services of a Realtor. Video is going to be the preferred medium for viewing properties and the link is easy to put into social media.

To find clients who want to sell, I use it to market my services. Also, real estate is evolving into a consulting business where my clients pay only for the services they want.

Steve Shatsky

Steve Shatsky

Prudential Texas Properties

Social networking is not a “new” tool. Agents on the cutting edge in building business and effectively marketing their clients’ properties have been using it for several years now. In fact, any agent today who does not have a social networking strategy as part of both his/her business and marketing plans is missing a critical component.

I have been successfully using Facebook to create visibility for listings and draw attention to open houses. I have also used Facebook to connect with and strengthen my relationships with clients. Real estate is a business of relationships and Facebook allows me to communicate and get to know my clients even better, while it allows them to get to know me better, as well.

My Dallasism.com blog has served multiple purposes. It has provided a search engine optimized platform to promote my listings to prospective buyers searching for homes on the Internet. It also allows me to provide monthly market reports for all the Turtle Creek highrises to prospective buyers and sellers searching for information on the Internet.

Dallasism.com has introduced new clients to me and my market expertise in the Turtle Creek area.

Lastly, I have blogged and been an ambassador for ActiveRain (an international real estate networking and blogging website) for more than three years. My blogging as a member of the ActiveRain community has allowed me to develop relationships and a nationwide network of real estate agents who refer business to me and with whom I network to share marketing and business ideas. This has been invaluable, allowing me to gain insight into new trends and innovative technologies, giving me a competitive advantage over agents whose networking is confined to only a local level.

Shatsky is vice president of real estate services, Dallas office manager for Prudential Texas Properties. He has recently taught classes on the use of blogging and Facebook in real estate at several locations across the DFW area for the MetroTex Association of Realtors. He was a panelist on the topic of real estate blogging for ActiveRain at their RainCamp-Charlotte event last fall, and will be speaking on a panel covering the topic of short sales at the Prudential Real Estate sales convention in San Diego in March.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

TNA Wrestling launches anti-bullying campaign

TNA Wrestling World Heavyweight Champion Jeff Hardy: “If the bullies have a problem with you, then they have a problem with me.”

We’ve seen a lot of celebrities and political figures get in on the anti-bullying action lately. Fort Worth’s own Joel Burns made a big splash. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made videos. So did folks like Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, financial expert Suze Orman, actress Jennifer Love Hewitt and comedian Margaret Cho. Singers like Gloria Estefan, Adam Lambert and Kesha made It Gets Better videos.

Even Kermit the Frog made a video for the It Gets Better project.

But today I saw something that really caught my attention. It’s an anti-bullying campaign from what I would consider a totally unlikely source: Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling’s new Eliminate the Hate campaign.

“Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling wants to put a headlock on bullying, an epidemic that has gripped the U.S. for decades, but has recently gained national attention this fall with its link to a number of teen suicides,” says TNA’s news release. The campaign will feature public service announcements during TNA programming, including its Thursday night line-up on Spike (TNA iMPACT! and ReAction). The spots will be placed on all other TNA Wrestling platforms, including the website , DVDs and all social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter.

“TNA is also working closely with the hit Sirius XM primetime show Derek & Romaine as well as other Sirius XM® programs, and with broadcast partner Spike, who will air the PSAs across their network,” the statement says.

“Everyone at TNA stands firmly behind this new anti-bullying campaign.  The bullying must stop, and we want to take a stand,” said TNA’s chief marketing officer, Al Ovadia, himself a father of two. “There’s no place in our schools for bullying, be it based on a student’s looks, race, sexual orientation or anything else.”

And there’s more. The statement identifies several TNA stars who were bullied growing up, like Mr. Anderson and Kazarian. “The Pope” D’Angelo Dinero says he was bullied when he was younger, but when he got to high school he “turned the tables” by protecting other children from bullies.

And reigning TNA world heavyweight champion Jeff Hardy kicked off the campaign with a videotaped appearance on The Talk, delivering a special message to 11-year-old Tyler Wilson, a TNA fan who was bullied because he was on a cheerleading squad and ended up with a broken arm. The message included an invitation to a taping of TNA Impact! and a backstage meet-and-greet with Hardy and other TNA stars.

Hardy told Wilson he was proud of him for standing up for himself and standing up to the bullies, and that in doing so he had become an inspiration to youngsters around the world. Hardy ended the message with this: “And remember, if the bullies have a problem with you, they have a problem with me.”

Ya know, there’s been a lot of talk in the last couple of years in North Texas about how the LGBT community is always preaching to the choir by having its rallies and parades and so on always in the gayborhood. The message, critics say, needs to get out there to the rest of the world. Well, I can’t think of any audience further from the gayborhood than the TNA Wrestling fans. And to have these wrestlers tell those fans that bullying is not OK will, hopefully, have a huge impact, on at least a few people who might not have paid any attention to what Tim Gunn or Kermit the Frog had to say.

—  admin

RL raid anniversary: What a difference a year makes

Fort Worth community leaders, police officials look back at 12 months of change in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid

Tammye Nash | Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

THEN AND NOW | A year ago, angry LGBT people protested outside the Rainbow Lounge just hours after a raid on the bar by Fort Worth police officers and TABC agents. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

What a difference a year makes.

On June 28, 2009, seven officers with the Fort Worth Police Department joined two agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in a raid on a newly-opened gay bar in Fort Worth called the Rainbow Lounge.

On June 28, 2010, the Fort Worth police were back at Rainbow Lounge. Only this time, instead of making arrests the officers were sharing a barbecue meal with community leaders and bar patrons and celebrating the progress the city has made over the last 12 months in improving the relationship between Fort Worth and its LGBT community.

And that progress, most in Fort Worth agree, has been remarkable.

Todd Camp, co-founder of Fort Worth’s Q Cinema LGBT film festival, was at the Rainbow Lounge celebrating his birthday with friends when the raid occurred. It was Camp, along with Chuck Potter, Thomas Anable and others, who used e-mail and social networking sites like Facebook to spread the word about the raid almost immediately.

They also put their outrage to work to organize two protests — one that Sunday afternoon outside the bar and a second later that evening outside the Tarrant County Courthouse — and to rally people to attend the next meeting of the Fort Worth City Council.
Camp said recently that he has been pleased to see the way that Fort Worth — its LGBT community, its police department and its city officials — have stepped up to the challenge and worked together not just to mend fences, but also break down barriers.

This week, Rainbow Lounge owner J.R. Schrock, left, and bar manager Randy Norman, right, played host as LGBT community members packed the bar for a barbecue and meet-and-greet with FWPD officers, from Chief Jeff Halstead to beat patrol officers. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

“I think, for me personally, the biggest accomplishment of the past year has been the fact that the city of Fort Worth has become aware that they have a gay community that has a voice with some emotion and power behind it, that it is a community that is willing to speak out when something is wrong,” Camp said.

“The City Council has stepped up to the plate and made a lot of fantastic changes. And there have been some really good changes in the police department, in the way they do business. It has really raised their [the police department’s] awareness,” Camp continued. “It took something going horribly wrong to open their eyes. But I feel like now, for the first time, the city and the police realize that there are gay people living here and that we are valuable members of society. … The city learned a lot about a vibrant part of its community.”

The incident has also, Camp said, raised awareness in the LGBT community.

“There was so much ignorance, and not just on the side of the city officials and law enforcement. It was on our side, too. We all learned a lot about the law, about what was acceptable and what was not acceptable.”

Police Chief Jeff Halstead agreed that both sides have learned valuable lessons from and about each other in the last year.

“We all decided to get past our emotions, and we’ve learned to respect each other’s feelings and opinions,” Halstead said. “And it’s definitely been a worthwhile investment for us all to make.”

The chief said he has seen a marked difference in the way the LGBT community responds to the police department since the raid occurred, and a difference in the way his officers see the LGBT community.

“I think people in the community feel like they have actually built friendships in the police department, and not just with [LGBT Liaison Officer Sara Stratten]. I think they feel like their ideas and opinions will be heard,” he said.

Halstead had been on the job as chief of the Forth Worth PD for less than a year when the Rainbow Lounge raid happened. And in his first public comments on the raid, Halstead told a reporter that patrons in the bar that night had made “sexually suggestive movements” toward the officers, and that he was proud of the restraint the officers had shown in the situation.

Halstead later apologized for his remarks, but not before the comments made him the focal point for much of the community’s anger and outrage. But at the barbecue this week, and when the chief attended a screening at the recent Q Cinema film festival, it was obvious that Halstead’s efforts to reach out to and understand the LGBT community had overcome the anger.

Camp said that “one of the greatest moments for me” of the last year came when Q Cinema previewed the recently-completed trailer for Robert Camina’s documentary, “Raid at the Rainbow Lounge.”

“[City Councilman] Joel Burns was in the audience, and Chief Halstead was there with his wife. There had been a lot of hand-wringing and worry over the trailer, because it focuses on the community’s immediate gut reaction to the raid. It’s kind of harsh, and [Camina] was a little bit worried about how the chief would react,” Camp said.

But Halstead took it all in stride, he said.

“I think it showed some tremendous courage for him to be there and see that trailer. He was painted as a villain early on, but he’s not a bad guy,” Camp said of Halstead. “He just had some learning to do, and he stepped up and was there and was supportive.

STOPPING TO REMEMBER | Fairness Fort Worth President Thomas Anable, left, and Q Cinema co-founder Todd Camp were among the community leaders who attended a barbecue on Monday, June 28, at Rainbow Lounge to commemorate the anniversary of the 2009 raid on the bar and celebrate the progress the community has made over the last 12 months. Anable and Camp were both at Rainbow Lounge when the raid occurred, and both helped organize the community’s response. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

“I also think it says a lot that the chief of police was there for the opening night of an LGBT film festival,” Camp continued. “It meant a lot to everybody that he was there. … It’s a sign that things really are changing for the better.”

One of the first — and perhaps, most important — of those changes for the better came less than a month after the raid when Halstead announced that Fort Worth Officer Sara Straten had been appointed interim liaison to the LGBT community. By the end of the year, the appointment had been made permanent and Straten had been reassigned from her community patrol duties to the public information office.

Straten acknowledged recently that while she is glad to be the LGBT liaison officer, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride.

At first, Straten said, people in the LGBT community saw her as being too supportive of Halstead, a man they still saw as the enemy. But as time passed, both she and the chief have built not only solid working relationships within the community, but friendships as well.

There have been very concrete advances with the police department, Straten said, starting with the implementation of a new policy on bar checks that went into effect on Sept. 1 last year. The new policy specifies detailed steps for officers to follow, and designed to lessen the potentially adversarial relationship between officers, bar owners and staff and patrons.

Straten also praised the new diversity training implemented within the police department that puts more focus on LGBT issues than before. She said she and Gil Flores taught the first diversity training session, and that officers in the class “asked a lot of good questions.”

“The mayor and the chief both went through the training themselves about a month ago, and the chief was there at the first session,” she said.

Officers also participated in the Tarrant County Gay Pride Parade and Picnic last October, and the chief and his wife attended the picnic.

The atmosphere for LGBT officers within the department has improved significantly, too, Straten said.

Before she volunteered for the liaison position, Straten was not out at work. In fact, when she did step forward to volunteer, she became the first officially “out” officer on the force. Since then, a number of other officers have come out, but Straten says the credit for that goes to the chief’s leadership in creating a more comfortable and accepting atmosphere, and the individual officers’ courage in taking that step.

FROM PROTEST TO PARTY | The Rev. Carol West, left, and David Mack Henderson, right, both of Fairness Fort Worth, are all smiles as they talk to Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead during a barbecue and meet-and-greet with police officers at the Rainbow Lounge on Monday, June 28, the one-year anniversary of the Rainbow Lounge raid. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

“Coming out is scary. But what kept me in the closet back then was as much my own stereotyping as anything else,” she said. “I do think there has been a shift [in attitudes within the police department], but I would never say that came from me. I think it’s more about a shift in the culture at large. The younger officers coming into the force are much more accepting in general, and that changes things for everybody.”

Halstead agreed that there has been a shift within the department.

“I think that more and more, officers are feeling like they can just be themselves, gay or not,” Halstead said. “It’s taken some time, but the improving relationship with the LGBT community is helping. With the proper training and with time, it will continue to improve.”

Perhaps one of the most significant changes over the past year has been the formation and continued growth of the organization Fairness Fort Worth. The group was formed in the days immediately following the raid initially to assist in finding witnesses who saw what happened that night, and to provide those witnesses with legal advice and support in giving their statements to investigators with the Fort Worth Police Department and TABC.

Now, said Anable, the group’s newly-elected president, FFW has branched out and is intent on becoming a permanent resource for the entire community, helping to coordinate between other organizations and serving as a clearinghouse for and point of contact between the LGBT community and the community at large.

Anable said the group has secured its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and organizers held their “first real strategic planning meeting” in January. FFW is also conducting a community survey that will allow the group to compile statistics on the Fort Worth LGBT community.

“We’ve never really had an organization in Tarrant County that was really plugged into the political process, one that is able to speak consistently with one voice,” Anable said. “We are actually doing, now, things that were only talked about before. We have the momentum and the commitment to move forward with things that have only been talked about for a decade.”

Although the Fort Worth community has “a cooperative spirit” and has accomplished goals in the past — like getting the city to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting lesbians and gays — such efforts were always done quietly and in a somewhat piecemeal manner, Anable said.

But now, he added, “we have an organization that has depth and is permanent, something that won’t go away. We have lines of communication open now that we never had before. We have real credibility now. Now, they know we are a viable and valuable community.”

Members of FFW were among those who went to the Fort Worth City Council meetings following the raid. They stepped up to serve on the Diversity Task Force formed by the council that came up with a list of changes, most of which have been made already by city officials.

Among those was amending the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance to specifically protect transgender people as well as lesbians and gays. Two of the task force’s recommendations — domestic partner benefits for city employees and insurance coverage for city employees who undergo gender transition surgery — are still on the table, primarily because the city has to watch every penny during the ongoing economic crunch.

There are other plans in the works, too, Anable said, such as building an LGBT community center that would include a phone bank and a library.

And while the resources — and the need — for these advances have always existed within the community, it took what Anable called “the perfect storm” of the Rainbow Lounge raid to set the change in motion.

“It really was a perfect storm. It was the 40th anniversary of Stonewall; they were having the Stonewall anniversary march in Dallas; Todd [Camp] was there in the bar that night; I was there,” Anable said. “People saw what happened, and people were angry. And they were willing to do something about it.

“It’s amazing, really, everything that has happened,” he continued. “I mean, to go from where we were to where we are now in just 11 months — are you kidding me? It’s been amazing.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 02, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas