Tag: Divorce Facebook Evidence

Social Media, Family Law, and Russian Hacking

Hypothetically, if Vladimir Putin opened fake social media accounts in your name to ruin your family law custody case, what would happen? An unfortunate Florida woman, who was recently sentenced to five months in jail for a few posts on her Facebook page, found out the hard way.

Social Media Family Law

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The Father, Timothy Weiner, had been warned. The judge in his custody case ordered him to stop harassing his ex-wife on Facebook. The family court judge issued two orders to keep any information about the case off social media and prevent family members from publishing information about the custody action on social media.

“Neither parent,” Pasco Circuit judge Lauralee Westine wrote in her order after the September hearing, “shall disparage or threaten the other parent on social media.”

But a week later, a photo of his ex-wife surfaced on a father’s rights Facebook page called “Mothers who abuse kids.” Weiner hit the “like” button. Fast forward to this summer. The Father’s new wife, Jessie Weiner, who is not a party to his custody case, was not served with the order.

In one of Ms. Weiner’s Facebook posts, sensitive family court documents concerning her Husband’s child from his previous marriage were posted. Court records indicate that someone on Weiner’s Facebook even shared an old news article about when her husband was jailed over a Facebook post.

The uploaded Facebook documents had to do with the ongoing family law custody case between Weiner’s husband and his ex. The family judge was not amused, and took swift action. She entered an order directing Ms. Weiner to show cause why she should not be held in indirect criminal contempt for failing to obey her orders.

Ms. Weiner received the order to show up in court the day before the 4:30 p.m. hearing that had been scheduled. Her lawyer, whom she retained on the same day as the hearing, argued for dismissal, for the judge’s disqualification, and for a continuance.

“Next thing I know, I hear five months in the county jail. “No matter what I said, I was guilty.”

The family judge denied all of her motions, found Ms. Weiner guilty of indirect criminal contempt, and sentenced her to five months’ confinement in jail for contempt of court.

What if, as Ms. Weiner argued, the social media accounts were not authentic, i.e. she didn’t make the Facebook posts?

Florida Authenticity and Social Media

I’ve written about the widespread use of social media in society, and how that impacts family court cases. Especially when it comes to authenticating documents in family court.

Some exhibits are so trustworthy they don’t even require a witness to authenticate. Evidence Rule 201 lists matters which a court must judicially notice, meaning a judge does not have discretion but to admit indisputable evidence.

The list is short, and includes laws of the Congress and Florida Legislature; Florida statewide rules of court, rules of United States courts, and U.S. Supreme Court rules.

Rule 202 includes even more matters, but also provides judges leeway in deciding whether or not to take judicial notice. For example, the statute allows a court to take judicial notice of facts that are not subject to dispute because they are “generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the court”, and facts that are not subject to dispute because they are “capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot be questioned.”

But with the Russian election scandal, and the widespread use of fake social media accounts, you have to start to wonder whether the genuineness assumption of evidence in family court still stands.

Governments manipulate photographs. It is not unheard of for spouses to hack computers and borrow smartphones to impersonate their owners’ texts. Anyone can set up a Facebook page, email, Instagram, or twitter account.

The increasing use of electronic evidence at trial, and the ease with which it is impersonated and manipulated, pressures us to bolster foundational evidence more than ever. Unfortunately for Ms. Weiner, she was jailed before she could even challenge the evidence.

What’s on your mind?

The Second District Court of Appeals had no trouble quashing the contempt order and freeing Ms. Weiner . . . after she served a month in jail.

First, the order violated Ms. Weiner’s due process rights because she was not subject to or served with the court order that she was accused of disobeying.

Second, the order to show cause was never served on Ms. Weiner within a “reasonable time allowed for preparation of the defense,” as required by Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure. Ms. Weiner’s name did not appear in the order’s service list, and it is undisputed that she received the order the day before the hearing and did not engage counsel until the morning of the hearing.

Finally, the trial judge should have disqualified herself because the contempt conduct involved disrespect and criticism of the judge.

This rule assures that a person cited for a contempt of court which involved a criticism of a judge, would not be tried before the judge who was the subject of the criticism.

The opinion is here.


Emojis and divorce: What did ???? mean?

Emails and texts have become regular exhibits in divorce trials. And increasingly, people are using emojis to express their intent. But did the witness’s champagne bottle and lipstick emoji mean what we thought? This is a post about emoji law.


“Emoji” is Japanese for pictograph: e “picture” + moji “character”. Emojis are a writing system that uses symbols to represent an idea rather than words.

According to some studies, more than 90% of social media users communicate with emojis with some six billion emojis exchanged daily.

In a way, we’ve regressed to a hieroglyphics language not unlike the ancient Egyptians.

The Wall Street Journal has a great article on the increasing trend of people communicating through pictures and how we lawyers have to decipher the parties’ meaning.

Divorce Evidence

I’ve written about social media evidence in divorce before. The increasing use of emojis has put a new spin on things.

One of the first questions lawyers ask is about authenticity. Is the text, FaceBook or Instagram post even authentic? Usually, authentication of evidence like texts, emails, photographs, videos, audio recordings, and computer records is required as a condition to being admitted into evidence.

Some exhibits are so trustworthy, our Evidence Code doesn’t even require a witness. This is useful for things like: the law, and court rules for instance. For most other evidence, the Evidence Code lets the judge decide.

Over the years, the threat of false evidence being introduced in court has been diminished through the discovery process. We send out requests for admission and have pretrial conferences which have helped make authentication less of a concern.

Only after the evidence is found to be authentic can we discuss the intent of the text or post. Family law is unique. We have hearings early in the case, which means your emoji, and what you intended, can be discussed right away.

Emojis and the Law

Emojis are new, so there are no laws on the treatment of these emotion laden symbols. We only have a few cases to determine what courts do with emojis – and they do not consistently agree.

In some cases, emojis are taken under consideration when interpreting a commenter’s original intent.

For example, the appeals court in Michigan determined that “The use of the ‘:P’ emoticon makes it patently clear that the commenter was making a joke” because the face this emoticon represents usually “denotes a joke or sarcasm.”

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a conviction of making threatening communications. The primary issue was whether a husband intended a “true threat” to his wife. The husband argued that his text was in jest because he added a “smiley” emoji sticking its tongue out.

The Supreme Court did not discuss the emoji, but reversed the conviction on other grounds.

The Wall Street Journal article is here (paywall).


Facebook Divorce

Facebook has revolutionized the way we keep relationships, and the way we divorce. At least it has for Iain Theyers, of Britain. Ian thought he could re-marry until his wife searched Facebook to get a hold of him.

Dual Marriages on Facebook

According to the BBC, Iain married a woman named Louise Martin while apparently still hitched to wife of five years, Marian Belahonia, it is alleged. Ms. Belahonia, who wanted to file for divorce, discovered through Facebook that Ian had re-married.

The couple met when Ms. Belahonia moved to Britain while Mr. Theyers was working at the airport, and married in 2006 at her parent’s home in Peru, while pregnant with his child. Ms. Belahonia returned to Britain and was later granted full UK citizenship in 2013.

After their marriage deteriorated in 2010, she tracked him down on Facebook in an effort to file for a divorce, but then discovered he had already married Louise Martin in 2011.

Social Media Evidence

I’ve written about social media and divorce before. I have also published an article about Facebook evidence and divorce. There are many benefits, but also obstacles, in gathering and using Facebook evidence at trial.

But there is no question, as Ms. Belahonia quickly found out, that Facebook evidence can be very helpful in court. Some other examples of Facebook evidence being used at trial include:

Husband . . . [posts] his single, childless status while seeking primary custody of said nonexistent children.

Mom denies in court that she smokes marijuana but posts partying, pot-smoking photos of herself on Facebook.

Social media can have such a big impact on people’s lives, many clients have started demanding social media clauses in their prenuptial agreements. In fact, prenuptial agreements should include a “social media clause”.

Prenuptial Agreement Clauses

A Social Media Clause could protect against a public relations disaster because your wife liked that cute picture of you passed out on vacation, or prevents your husband from uploading a picture of you in the bathroom because he thought it was funny.

You and your partner could agree not to post, tweet, or otherwise share certain positive, negative, insulting, embarrassing, or flattering images or content. While married, you have control over what gets posted, but after an angry breakup, it could be “anything goes.”

In his defense, Ian has claimed his marriage to Ms. Belahonia in Peru was a sham to enable her to get a UK visa. Remember, the next time you log in, what you do in the digital world could have a very impact in the real world.

The BBC article is here.


Facebook Evidence In Divorce Trials

On behalf of Ronald H. Kauffman, P.A. posted in Divorce on Friday, February 22, 2013.

Divorce trials usually require the introduction of highly personal evidence. For example, it is common to hire private investigators to film spouses, or use forensic accountants to hunt for strange credit card charges.

Sometimes though, the evidence falls in your lap. Facebook and social media sites are often filled with very personal information which is increasingly being used in divorce trials. You may have heard of some examples:

  • A Husband posts his status as single and childless on Facebook while seeking primary custody of his children.
  • A mother is accused of never attending her kids’ school events because of her online gaming addiction. Evidence subpoenaed from World of Warcraft tracks her on-line with her boyfriend at the time when she was supposed to be with the children.
  • A husband denies he has any anger management issues, but posts on Facebook; “If you have the balls to get in my face, I’ll kick your ass into submission.”
  • A mom denies in court that she ever smokes marijuana, but then uploads photos of herself smoking pot on Facebook.

Is the evidence admissible? And if so, how do you prove the evidence is real and not maliciously put there? The Florida Bar Commentator published an article I wrote about using Facebook evidence at trial. Here is a brief abstract:

The article discusses the evidentiary potential of social media sites, and the peculiar challenges of authenticating materials from the internet. Social media websites like Facebook have had an astronomical growth worldwide, and are showing up in divorce trials. The article suggests some of the benefits and obstacles in gathering and using Facebook and other social media evidence at trial. The article also reviews the leading national cases on social media websites, and outlines when it is necessary to use computer forensic firms and other sources to ensure that the evidence is properly admitted.

My new article appears in the Winter 2013 issue of the Florida Bar Family Law Section Commentator.