Texas Woman Arrested for Outing Undercover Cop on Facebook
A woman in Texas is facing criminal retaliation charges after she posted a photo on Facebook of an undercover police officer. Melissa Walthall, 30, will answer charges that she created a “viable threat” to the officer’s safety by identifying him as a cop after he testified against her friend in a drug trial.
Walthall’s friend, George Pickens, had apparently found the officer’s personal Facebook page after the cop testified against him during his trial two months previously. According to reports, Pickens and his brother then printed out flyers featuring the photo with plans to post them around town. The flyers never went up, but Walthall allegedly saw them and took a photo of them, which she posted on Facebook with the label “Undercover Mesquite Narcotics” and caption “Anyone know this b****.”
Bad idea. She was arrested soon after, along with Pickens and his brother.
Once the embarrassing disclosure was reported, the police department admitted that it had no policy about its employees and social media. Mitch Landry, deputy executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, noted that officers need to be careful about what they post online. “Our best advice is, if you don’t want that information out there, don’t have those accounts,” Landry told a Dallas paper. “There’s no way to be truly anonymous if you have a Facebook page.”
Not a Slam Dunk
Criminal retaliation means an assault or threat against public officials or witnesses as a means of getting even, usually for testimony or actions that led to an arrest or conviction against a defendant. In Texas the crime is typically treated as a third degree felony, with penalties of two to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. However, the case against Walthall may not be open and shut.
“What’s interesting in this case is that in order to be guilty of retaliation, you have to have intentionally or knowingly harmed another by an unlawful act,” says Everett W. Newton, a criminal defense attorney with the Dallas firm Berlof and Newton. “The question becomes, was posting this officer’s picture on Facebook an unlawful act?”
In other words, unless prosecutors can show that another crime took place, they won’t be able to prove retaliation charges. There are a few statutes in Texas that could potentially apply, but none is a slam dunk. “One is improper photography,” Newton says. “In order to be guilty of that you have to take someone’s picture either inside a bathroom or dressing room without consent with intent to arouse or gratify sexual desire.” Since Walthall pulled the photo from a flyer, even if it were a pervy bathroom photo it would be difficult to pin the charges on her.
“Another possibility is the offense of harassment,” the attorney says. “Reading the statute, there doesn’t seem to be any provisions in which you can pigeonhole these circumstances.”
Clearly, law enforcement officials don’t want to see pictures of their undercover agents posted all over the Internet, but without a law specifically against that act the retaliation charges won’t work. “I understand the state’s interest in not wanting to have these officers on Facebook and undermining their ability to perform undercover operations,” Newton says. “But we have to look to the law and see if it applies or not. In this case, I’m not sure that it does.”
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