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New York judge rules Instagram contact violates order of protection

Stacked3Here is this week's Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Every year, as I work on the annual update to the book, Criminal Law In New York, which I co-author with Judge Karen Morris, I take notice when I come across cases where social media and criminal law intersect. People v. Lemons, 2016 WL 1735472, which was pointed out to me by my fellow Daily Record columnist Scott Malouf, is just such a case.

At issue in People v. Lemons is whether actions taken by the defendant using the social media platform Instagram constituted a communication that was in violation of a pending order of protection. In the accusatory instrument the complainant alleged that there was an order of protection in place that forbade the defendant from contacting her by electronic or other means and that the defendant violated it by sending her a “follow” request on Instagram.

The defendant brought a motion to dismiss the accusatory instrument for facial insufficiency, contending that the follow request he allegedly initiated via Instagram, which caused a notification to be sent to the complainant, via Instagram did not violate the order of protection because he did not directly communicate with her.

The Court rejected his argument, concluding that the request that he allegedly initiated through Instagram was, in fact, a communication: “(T)he Court has little trouble concluding that when the defendant sent the complainant a message through the Instagram app this was “communication or any other contact by ... other electronic or any other means,” and was forbidden by terms of the order of protection. The electronic communication originated with the defendant and ended up in the complainant's Instagram inbox, where she saw it.”

According to the Court, he effectively communicated with the complainant even thought it was not a direct communication. The Court explained that he initiated the connection request knowing it would set a series of events in motion which would result in a notification from Instagram to the complainant regarding his interest in connecting with her on the platform: “(E)ven though the specific allegation in the information is that the communication did not flow directly from the defendant to the complainant, since defendant asked Instagram, and not the complainant herself, for permission to view the complainant's page, and Instagram forwarded that request to her. There is no reason to conclude that this forwarding was anything other than an automatic and automated feature built directly into the app, and thus there is also no reason to conclude that the communication was made only to Instagram, and not to the complainant.”

As is often the case in well-reasoned decisions issued by judges regarding online interactions, Judge Statsinger compared the defendant’s actions in this case to similar “offline” behavior that was analogous to the actions alleged to have been taken by the defendant: “The situation described here is exactly the same as if the defendant, using his iPhone, had asked Siri to place a call to the complainant, instead of dialing her number himself. Just as in this hypothetical there could be no legitimate claim that the defendant communicated only with Siri and did not himself telephone the complainant, here there can be no legitimate claim that the defendant communicated only with Instagram, and not with the complainant.”

This was an interesting issue of first impression in New York and Judge Statsinger did a great job analyzing the issues and provided a clear, concise, and logical decision. One more social media platform has now been addressed in this context. Rest assured—many more will follow.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.