Online Impersonators Face Charges in Wake of Sandy Hook

Posted December 21, 2012 in Criminal Law Internet Law Social Networks by

Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance

Lt. J. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

With the speed and convenience of social media, it takes minimal time and effort to perpetrate a hoax online. But Internet pranksters may want to think twice before making their next fraudulent post, now that state and federal authorities in Connecticut have raised the possibility of criminal charges against those who impersonated Sandy Hook Elementary shooter Adam Lanza and others connected to the shooting.

“Misinformation is being posted on social media sites,” said Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance at a press conference. “There has been misinformation coming from people posing as the shooter in this case, using other IDs, mimicking this crime, crime scene and criminal activity that took place in this community.”

Vance said some of the online posts were made in a “somewhat threatening manner” and that “these issues are crimes, they will be investigated statewide and federally, and prosecution will take place when people perpetrating this information are identified.”

Tom Carson, spokesman for Connecticut-based U.S. Attorney David Fein, said in a separate statement that the harassment of anyone connected to the case would be prosecuted “to the fullest extent permitted by law” and specified that “harassment not only includes in-person contact, but also contact via the Internet, social media and telephone.”

Neither official called out any specific online posts, but CNN reports that multiple Twitter accounts created after the shooting appeared to exploit Lanza’s notoriety, including at least one that was written from Lanza’s perspective. Twitter has deactivated several of the accounts for policy violations.

Vance and Carson’s statements suggest potential charges could include criminal impersonation, criminal misrepresentation and harassment. But Jonathan Ezor, Director of the Institute for Business, Law and Technology at Touro Law Center, says that investigators have their work cut out for them while identifying suspects.

“Online, it’s much harder to prove actual identity,” Ezor said. “With an IP address, at best you have a specific account. There’s an extra burden on the part of whoever is investigating to prove which person was using that account.”

Even if investigators can conclusively identify suspects, Ezor says they may also have a difficult time meeting the legal standards of the charges they pursue.

“Both in the real world and in the cyber world, the general standard is that of a credible threat,” Ezor said. “That’s usually where you cross the line from legally protected stupidity to potential criminality. The possibility of a prosecution is entirely dependent on whether it’s a credible threat and whether they can prove it.”

 

Online Impersonation Law Still Developing

Professor Jonathan Ezor headshot

Jonathan Ezor

Depending on what investigators find, prosecutors could file charges against these impersonators even though Connecticut doesn’t have laws specifically against online impersonation. But in recent years, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Texas and Washington have all passed laws that single out online impersonation as a separate criminal offense. In Texas, it’s a third degree felony punishable by up to ten years in state prison.

Critics have called these new laws redundant, since much of the conduct prohibited by online impersonation laws is already covered by existing laws. In the case of California’s online impersonation law, digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that the law could enable powerful interests to suppress the free speech of groups like the Yes Men, which uses impersonation and satire to lampoon corporations and government.

“Legislatures aren’t always the best bodies to address technology-driven issues,” Ezor said. “But courts can only go so far in stretching definitions and precedents to cover certain situations that weren’t possible before technology allowed it. So there may be a need for these laws.”

Laws against online impersonation began trickling through state legislatures following the landmark case against Lori Drew, a Missouri woman who posed as a fictitious 16-year-old boy on MySpace to deceive and torment her daughter’s 13-year-old classmate, Megan Meier. Meier committed suicide after the cyberbullying, and Drew was eventually charged in federal court under statutes that were originally designed to combat computer hacking. The jury found Drew guilty of only one misdemeanor violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a decision that was overturned by a judge just months later.

Ezor says the Drew case illustrates why online impersonation laws may have harsh sentencing guidelines.

“There is no way in the real world that a mother can convincingly impersonate a fake teenage boy,” Ezor said. “Certain things become so much easier online than offline. Laws with stronger penalties can dissuade people from taking the easier route.”

Do you think online pranksters should be prosecuted for fraudulent social media posts about the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings? Let us know in the comments section below.

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