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Online Postings Lead To Stiffer Sentences

Prosecutors are increasingly using photos posted on Facebook and MySpace, popular social networking sites, to obtain harsher sentences.

It was bad taste, to say the least, when Joshua Lipton, a 20-year-old college junior charged with seriously injuring a woman during a drunken driving accident, showed up to a Halloween party dressed as a prisoner. Photos of Lipton in his faux prison garb, a black-and-white striped shirt and orange jumpsuit, were posted on Facebook and later fell into the hands of John Sullivan, the prosecutor handling Lipton’s drunken driving case.

Sullivan used the photos at Lipton’s sentencing to paint Lipton as unremorseful. The judge agreed, called the photos “depraved” and gave Lipton two years in prison.

“Social networking sites are just another way that people say things or do things that come back and haunt them,” said Phil Malone, director of the cyberlaw clinic at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The things that people say online or leave online are pretty permanent.”

Pictures like those of Lipton are embarrassing and make it more difficult to obtain leniency. Fortunately for defendants, it does not appear that prosecutors are scouring the web in preparation for every sentencing.

“It’s not possible to do it in every case,” said Darryl Perlin, a senior prosecutor in Santa Barbara County, California. “But certain cases, it does become relevant.”

Perlin was willing to go along with Lara Buys’s request for probation for a drunken driving accident that killed her passenger – at least until he saw her MySpace page.

Buys’s page featured photos of her – taken after the accident but before sentencing – holding a glass of wine and making jokes about drinking. Perlin used the pictures to argue for a jail sentence instead of probation. Buys was sentenced to two years in prison.

“Pending sentencing, you should be going to [Alcoholics Anonymous], you should be in therapy, you should be in a program to learn to deal with drinking and driving,” Perlin said. “She was doing nothing other than having a good old time.”

“When you take pictures like that,” Santa Barbara defense attorney Steve Balask said, “it’s a hell of an impact.”


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