A friend of mine related a story to me, that for reasons you’ll be able to see below, I can’t go into. It did get me thinking about a similar situation that I had gotten myself into over a year ago involving a rental car and a mailbox. I was visiting some friends in East Texas and happened to hit a guy’s mailbox with my rental car mirror on the way to church. I won’t go into much detail but suffice to say I didn’t know I knocked it off the post until I had already parked my car at church. Aggravation ensued soon after. Now I had paid for the insurance so it wasn’t a big deal and I was able to buy the guy a new mailbox so it worked out, no charges were pressed and we went on our merry way.
It got me thinking about what could have happened to me if I’d not cooperated or if no one had seen me knock the mailbox off and the sheriff had been a little more annoying. I paid for the mailbox even though I’m sure he had it stuck too far over the road and had this been my home town I probably would have won in court. But say I hadn’t paid for insurance, no one saw me and I just thought it was funny.
One of the first things I might have done was posted about it on Facebook, or in my blog here. Maybe not right away but later. Then say the owner of the box had found the pieces of the mirror and the rental car company discovered the damage after I’d already gone home. Now, being me I probably would have just admitted to the damage, but I could have easily said that someone smacked the car in a parking lot, or just denied even knowing about it. It was hardly noticeable and on the passenger side.
The rental car company might have investigated further but under normal circumstances likely would have never found the police report about the mailbox. Even if they did, drawing a conclusion that involved me would have been a real stretch. The town I was in was not exactly anywhere close to where I’d rented the car.
What really would have been an issue though is if the car company had decided to go ahead and take me to court over the mirror. I know for a fact that in my own hometown of Amarillo that there are people in our DA’s office that do nothing but check out people on Facebook and other social networking sites. They just search for people on the internet and look for stuff they wrote. This is a town of under 200,000 people and even we have lawyers that do that. Our law enforcement has claimed to have figured a lot of stuff out and caught people just using Facebook.
Now if we have people smart enough to do that, I can reasonably conclude that the lawyers for Enterprise or Budget rental cars do the same exact thing. So they look me up on the internet and manage to find me, not a terribly easy task but hey, I was the one renting the car, not my boss so they even had my social security number that I gave to them like an idiot. They find this nice, well worded story about how I knocked a mailbox off a post in that East Texas town. Maybe I was smart enough not to say the town’s name. They knew where I was that week though so it wouldn’t be hard to start asking county law enforcement about incidents. Then they could see from my Facebook page that I do in fact know a few people in that town.
I could deny it all I wanted, but the pieces of mirror, the fact that I was in the area, and a whole church full of people that would have no reason to cover for me would be pretty damning evidence. The pretty much written confession on Facebook would have not helped me either. There would have been a whole lot of laws broken there and the ensuing fight over the mailbox would have been ridiculous once the legal system was involved. In short I would have been in a lot of trouble instead of just settling the damage like men.
The conclusion I hope you’ve come to from reading this is that social networking and blogging like this can be a very dangerous thing if you’ve broken the law or are involved in a lawsuit of some kind. I hope that no one is, but stuff does happen. You have to understand that law enforcement and the legal system do have people that search you out on the internet. They do look at Facebook pages, they will use deception to get access to your stuff, and they will use it against you. There is no need for a warrant to use something against you that is public knowledge. The Miranda rights are there for a reason when you get arrested. This should be extended to your internet life too. It’s pretty simple and I think any defense attorney would give me a standing ovation for saying this: Keep your mouth shut!
If you are suspected of doing something illegal, or are involved in a lawsuit, you should probably cancel all your social networking accounts. Delete any posts that could be incriminating. At very least lock your privacy controls down so that the prosecution can’t easily snoop into your life. Don’t write about what you did or didn’t do. Do not talk about the incident online, whether you were actually involved or not. Don’t talk about a case if you are on the jury, don’t post about it and don’t write to the paper. Do not make it easy for them to find something that could convict you or get the case thrown out.
Some would argue that it looks suspicious just like it would look suspicious if you didn’t talk to the cops. That is your right to do so though. You not talking can not seriously be used against you in the United States legal system. I don’t have the academic credentials to give legal advice, but I’d have to conclude that removing your presence from the internet so that the prosecution would have to subpoena the account is along the same line of reasoning. They can’t just walk up to the phone company and get your call history for the last several months. They have to get a warrant to search your computer. They would need likely need a separate warrant to access your e-mail account (especially if it web mail and not on the computer). Why let them into your Facebook account without a warrant either?
That’s not to say that law enforcement, lawyers and judges are the enemy and should be subverted, but the whole social networking scene is a relatively new layer of stuff that can be used against you in court. Even if you’re involved in a civil suit it’s possible that a thoughtless Facebook post could get everything thrown out. Or worse yet, someone who might be guilty of a crime against you or your family could go free because the case was dismissed due to recklessness on your part. Why take the risk?
With any of this you should definitely consult with your lawyer first. I tend to think most would agree with at least locking it all down as quickly as possible though.