Federal agents obtaining warrants to search Facebook profiles

Technology is developing so rapidly that the law is oftentimes a few steps behind. This is the case in criminal law as it applies to social media sites like Facebook. Federal law enforcement agents have been asking for warrants to search defendants’ private Facebook accounts and these requests are being granted more and more, and some people believe this trend will lead to legal challenges.

According to a Reuters analysis of a Westlaw database, the warrants were granted for the FBI, ICE and DEA for a variety of cases involving serious violent crimes, such as rape, terrorism and arson, and more than two dozen were granted since 2008.

Defendants may question whether these searches violated their civil rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of illegal search and seizure. The reason why many legal challenges have not already come up could be that most of these individuals whose accounts have been searched by law enforcement have not been notified that this happened.

According to an article on the subject in the International Business Times, one of the cases involved four Satanists accused of arson in Ohio. These individuals were sentenced to eight to ten years in prison for burning down a church. An FBI agent was granted a warrant to search the Facebook accounts of two of the people charged with arson. According to the IBT, it is not known whether what was obtained in the search was used to convict the individuals, but none of the defendants’ attorneys knew that the search had occurred.

Once more people find out that their accounts were searched, legal challenges to the evidence obtained in those searches may be seen. Little has been specifically decided by the courts regarding what kind of reasonable expectation of privacy people have these days with the information stored with third parties online. It is likely that more will have to be hammered out around this issue in the months and years to come.

Facing criminal charges? Arrested? Contact a Baltimore criminal lawyer before you talk to police or anyone else.

Source: International Business Times, “A new U.S. law-enforcement tool: Facebook searches,” Jeff John Roberts, 12 July 2011

Maryland State Advisory Committee fails to issue report on criminal justice problems

As Keith Wallington and Walter Lomax write for the Baltimore Sun, the powers-that-be in Maryland apparently want to save face when it comes to racial discrimination in the Maryland criminal justice system, from traffic stops to drug offenses.

Despite a wide range of folks, from community representatives to scholars to members of the public, among others, who came to Annapolis in June to testify about racial disparities in the Maryland criminal justice system, the Maryland State Advisory Committee wrapped up its term without issuing so much as a report or one single recommendation as to how the problem could be addressed.

The purpose of the State Advisory Committee, as Wallington and Lomax report, is to advise the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

It’s not clear why the State Advisory Committee chose to take no action after having heard the testimony of many, many different people and organizations.

This, despite what Wallington and Lomax say is “plenty to report about,” such as the Maryland mandatory sentencing laws, which end up sentencing a disproportionate number of black men as opposed to white men, both of whom are often convicted of the same types of drug crimes.

Source: Maryland won’t face up to discrimination in criminal justice

Student accused of cyberbullying expelled, loses college scholarship

At first, the high school senior was simply suspended from school for 10 days, according to the Huffington Post, for violating the school’s policy against bullying behavior and Internet use. Now the student has been kicked out of school entirely.

It all started with an online prank involving a particular teacher’s pass code-protected website, where the expelled student shared the pass code and invited his peers to go in and post photos and comments intended to be “funny,” though the substance of the posts apparently crossed a line into cyberbullying.

As a result, the teacher had to have counseling.

To the student’s credit, he says that while he should not have given out the pass code, he did not post the offending content, and should not be expelled for other students’ behavior.

As a prime example of the kind of ripple effect that these kinds of allegations can have in a young person’s life, the student was not only expelled, but has lost a college scholarship. As the Huffington Post reports, the student said, “You know I’d like to go back to school, I’d like to get my diploma and go to Westfield State like I planned on, but I don’t see that happening.”

The article does not mention whether or not the student was charged with a crime, but more and more states are beginning to classify certain types of online computer-related behavior like cyberbullying (beyond the usual suspects like possession of child pornography), as crimes.

Source: Chris Latour, Massachusetts High School Student, Expelled For ‘Cyberbullying’ Senior Prank

Former Zynga employee accused of stealing trade secrets

The theft of trade secrets, like many internet crimes, is one that is easily committed with just a moment’s poor judgment. A few clicks, and the files move from the company database to one’s own computer. In some cases, the files may be taken legally during the course of one’s normal work. If that data is saved and used after one leaves the company, however, an employee can end up in a great deal of trouble.

This is apparently the case for a former employee of the social gaming giant Zynga Games. Zynga is famous for a number of hit titles, such as “Farmville,” “Chefville,” and “Zynga Poker.” In 2012, the general manager of a fourth hit title, “Cityville,” was poached by Kixeye, a competing social gaming company.

A month later, Zynga revealed that the departing manager had uploaded 760 files from his work computer onto Dropbox before he left the company. Those files could then be downloaded onto a personal computer at any time. Zynga said the files contained sensitive information about future products, pricing models and employee compensation.

Zynga filed a lawsuit against its former employee and his new company. This month, the lawsuit was dropped in an out-of-court settlement between Zynga, Kixeye and the employee. The terms of the settlement were confidential, but the employee did issue a public apology to Zynga and his former coworkers.

It’s sometimes difficult to know what one can and cannot bring from one employer to another, and failure to follow the rules can lead to a conviction for computer crimes. Employees who are concerned about such issues may wish to speak to a legal expert before switching jobs, to ensure that they have the most current information regarding the theft of trade secrets.

Source:  TechCrunch, “Zynga Settles With Former Employee Over Allegations of Theft of Trade Secrets” Kim-Mai Cutler, Sep. 11, 2013

Autistic computer science student arrested for internet crimes

Mental health issues are always a difficult subject in the area of the law and justice. On the one hand, when a person causes pain or discomfort to another person, the victimized party deserves some sort of recompense. On the other hand, however, is the sense that the accused criminal does not quite fully understand the consequences of his or her actions. It is the work of attorneys and judges to sort these issues out in a court of law.

In a case that recently caught national headlines, a 19-year-old college student was recently arrested for various Internet crimes he allegedly committed against a number of women nationwide. The man is accused of hacking into a woman’s webcam and surreptitiously taking photos while the woman was changing clothes. Police say he then attempted to blackmail the woman, saying he would release the images if the woman didn’t send more.

A six-month FBI investigation eventually resulted in the arrest of the 19-year-old computer science student. Police say he attempted to blackmail several different women and had at one point hacked over 150 computers. The man confessed to his actions following his arrest.

According to his attorney, the boy is autistic, and therefore, may feel an unusual lack of empathy for the women whose laptops he hacked. His family has expressed regret for his actions.

When dealing with mental health issues, courts should strive to do what is most appropriate based on the given circumstances. Often, the normal punishment or penalty would not serve any corrective purpose; in such cases, the result should be carefully tailored to suit the particular situation.

Source:  CNN, “Arrest made in Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf ‘sextortion’ case” Greg Botelho, Sep. 27, 2013

Maryland delegate proposes law to outlaw “revenge porn”

It’s a common criticism of American law that our criminal statutes are unable to keep up with the changing times. The Internet revolution, in particular, has presented a number of new legal issues that lawmakers often have difficulty sorting out. When new laws are created, lawmakers must take the time to ensure they are fair, just and enforceable.

One new law that is currently under consideration is a statute that would criminalize so-called “revenge porn.” Revenge pornography is the practice of posting an ex-lover’s nude photos onto the Internet following a breakup. It’s a practice that has become more widespread in recent years, and a number of websites have already been shut down and subjected to penalties for facilitating the practice.

Maryland already has laws that prevent Internet crimes, but some say these laws are not sufficient to punish and deter revenge pornography. One Maryland delegate is seeking to rectify this by introducing a new bill that would make the posting of revenge pornography a felony offense. Under the new law, people convicted would be subject to a $25,000 fine and a possible 5-year prison sentence.

Currently, only California and New Jersey have passed laws that specifically address the posting of revenge pornography. Proposals in other states have been derailed by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who feared that a poorly written law could violate the First Amendment rights of people who write about or link to revenge pornography sites.

If passed, the Maryland bill would create some of the strictest penalties in the nation for the posting of revenge pornography. Few details have been revealed about the wording of the bill itself; more information will likely be available when the bill is formally unveiled next week.

Source:  The Baltimore Sun, “Cardin proposes criminalizing ‘revenge porn’” Erin Cox, Oct. 28, 2013

Zero tolerance for alcohol crimes leads to serious punishment

Among American high school students, drinking alcohol is a relatively common crime. Many students experiment with alcohol at least once during their high school days. Although it’s dangerous and illegal, there’s no denying that the crime occurs fairly frequently.

As a reaction to this, many schools have enacted “zero tolerance” policies for underage drinking. These policies mandate that the school enact swift and immediate punishments against students who are found in a situation that involves drugs or alcohol. Such policies began with the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 and quickly spread to include other illegal substances and activities.

These punishments are enacted regardless of the student’s disciplinary history or the circumstances in which he or she was found. This has led to a number of high-profile cases in which students were given harsh punishments for seemingly innocuous actions.

Take, for instance, a high school volleyball player who was recently suspended for five games after she was discovered at the scene of a drinking party. The girl, an honor student and captain of the volleyball team, received a late night text from a friend asking for a ride home. The friend said she was too drunk to drive herself.

The volleyball player drove to the party, where police officers were already on the scene. The girl was questioned by police officers, who then concluded that she had no involvement with the underage drinking or with underage possession of alcohol.

Her school, however, suspended her for five games, a result of their zero tolerance policies.

Similar stories have played out across the country. Here in Maryland, for example, a 7-year-old boy received two days’ suspension after his teacher saw him molding his pastry snack and thought he was trying to make it into the shape of a gun. He was actually making it into the shape of a mountain.

Though the volleyball player escaped criminal charges, many students are not so lucky. Often, those who run afoul of zero tolerance policies are also subjected to criminal charges – a minor in possession of alcohol, for example. In these cases, the charges leveled against the teenager will be misdemeanors, which will appear on the minor’s criminal record. This can have lifelong consequences for anyone convicted of such charges. Criminal defense attorneys can offer advice while protecting a defendant’s rights in similar cases.

Source:  The Eastern Echo, “Zero tolerance policies make zero sense” Anthony Alaniz, Oct. 20, 2013

Maryland AG seeks to put a stop to bullying

Bullying has been a problem in America’s schools for as long as anyone can remember. It’s a difficult problem to solve; often, children accused of bullying don’t realize that what they’re doing is wrong or don’t understand the harm that their words or actions do.

Educators are well-versed in combating bullying at school, but recent advances in social media have taken bullying out of the school yard and onto the Internet.

It’s called cyber-bullying, and awareness of the practice has grown sharply in recent years. Children often use the anonymity provided by the Internet to send abuse to one another. This sort of bullying can be more difficult to detect and to stop, as those who have been bullied often do not reveal the actions to their parents or teachers.

Recently, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler announced that he planned to take a personal hand in putting a stop to bullying in Maryland schools.

Most people do not think of bullying as a legal issue, instead considering it a matter of schoolyard discipline. However, the abuse can be punishable by law. Cyber-bullying, in particular, is punishable by a Maryland law that was enacted following the suicide death of a 15-year-old girl, who was the victim of cyber-bullying.

Cyber-bullying is indeed an Internet crime, and efforts should be made to put a stop to it. However, authorities should take care when charging minors with cyber-bullying. In many cases, they may not understand what affect their words, which were not delivered face-to-face, had on the victim. They may be too young to truly grasp the consequences of what they had done. As a result, prosecutors and judges should take care to seek a punishment that educates and rehabilitates a person convicted of cyber-bullying, rather than a harsh sentence that only punishes.

Source:  WJZ-TV, “Md. Attorney General Teams Up With Schools To Track Bullies” Gigi Barnett, Nov. 06, 2013

So-called “Dark Web” user indicted in Maryland

In recent months, a great deal of media attention has been focused on the so-called “Dark Web,” a section of the Internet that is completely anonymous and untraceable. Though the dark web has many legitimate uses, such as journalism, many are using the technology to conceal illegal content and trade. This illegal trade is helped along by websites such as the “Silk Road,” which until recently was viewed as a gateway for those peddling drugs or illegal services.

The federal government has had a great deal of difficulty in identifying and shutting down such web users. Recently, however, federal agents tracked down one 32-year-old man who had allegedly been using the dark web to sell heroin and methylone to users across the United States. The man, a Maryland resident, was arrested and formally charged last month. Authorities say he used the screen name “digitalink” to sell drugs between November of 2011 and January of 2012. It is not clear exactly how many drugs the man is alleged to have sold.

This indictment comes shortly after the news that another, much higher-profile dark web user was arrested on drug charges, among other things. The California man, who allegedly operated under the screen name “Dread Pirate Roberts,” was allegedly the kingpin of the Silk Road website, which authorities say was responsible for over $1 billion of drug trading activity.

The Internet is a relatively new phenomenon, and it is being used in new and different ways every day. Our drug sentencing laws will need to evolve to match them. In this case, for example, prosecutors will need to determine what level of culpability these men have for their online activity. Based on the information, it does not appear that the Dread Pirate Roberts personally sold or used drugs; if not, will he be found responsible for creating a website that others use to sell drugs? What level of liability will he bear for that activity? Those involved with the case will have to work very carefully, as the charges for drug trafficking are very serious, and come with serious consequences.


The Baltimore Sun, “Maryland man charged in Silk Road drug marketplace case” Justin Fenton, Oct. 28, 2013

Civilian worker charged with computer crimes, voyeurism

A former U.S. Naval employee in Maryland is facing charges of video voyeurism in connection with a camera he allegedly placed in a women’s restroom. Officials say that the 55-year-old man is facing two misdemeanor counts of using electronic equipment in a clandestine manner. He is also facing felony counts for computer crimes including recording and transmitting obscenities, according to news reports.

Authorities report that the man was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation, which examined his culpability for the camera use during July and August 2013. The man is accused of using a camera in his workplace to capture images of three women as they used the bathroom. The man had been assigned to the building as a supervisor at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, according to officials.

The man is also accused of Internet crime related to the download of child pornography, according to state allegations. In addition, he allegedly set up a surveillance system in a local residence to capture other private images. Those state felony charges could yield a 10-year prison charge and a $20,000 fine, according to news reports.

So far, the man has pleaded not guilty to the state charges, and he is expected in court in late December to continue the hearing in that matter. Federal charges are likely to be officially imposed on Jan. 15 at a scheduled court date. The man must mount a criminal defense against the misdemeanor federal charges, which would likely yield less than a year’s prison time and a fine up to $1,000.

We often think of federal charges as posing the more severe threats in criminal defense cases, but that is not always the situation. In this case, the state felony charges carry much more serious potential punishment than the federal allegations. Defendants facing both state and federal accusations for computer crimes may benefit from the assistance of a qualified criminal defense attorney, who can help them learn more about their legal rights in both courtrooms.

Source:  mcalesternews.com, “Former civilian Naval supervisor at McAAP faces video voyeurism charge” James Beaty, Dec. 12, 2013