Sunday, November 15, 2015

How to sue someone in the digital age when you don't know where they live.

In every lawsuit the Plaintiff has the obligation to notify all defendants that they are being sued. When a lawsuit is filed the court issues a summons which must be served (usually with a complaint) on every defendant. Massachusetts and probably all other states prefer that the person be served in hand or at least by leaving documents at their home. What happens if you don't know where they live or work? How do you serve them?

Every state has laws that allow a substitute form of service of documents on a person who can't be located. In Massachusetts, a motion must be filed to serve by an alternate form of service. If nothing else works, the court can order service by publishing in a newspaper. Of course, most people don't read the legal notices in newspapers so service by publication usually results in no notice at all but would be satisfactory to a court. In Massachusetts, the courts prefer that a different form of notification be used. Massachusetts courts now require detailed affidavits explaining how the Plaintiff searched for a Defendant including details of searches on the internet. As one clerk told me internet searches are required unless the Defendant's name is Smith.

A search for a missing Defendant should start with a search for a telephone number. A telephone information request with the telephone company is generally a first step. If this doesn't work, a similar search on the internet using multiple search engines (Google, Bing, etc.) should be made. If the person has a driver's license or professional license then the state data banks may show a current address for the person. All of these search methods may show a residence for a missing Defendant. A lawyer can request confirmation of addresses or forwarding address information from the post office. A non-lawyer probably would need a court order authorizing the post office to provide this information from the post office.

If, after using all of the methods just described, the person still can't be located, then social media should be searched. There are too many social media sites to search them all. At a minimum, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, and GooglePlus should be searched. If a social media page is located for the individual then print the contents of the page. A judge may need information that the person currently uses the social media site.

If after all of these methods, the person still can't be found, try to locate a close relative: parent, child, ex-spouse, or sibling. These people may be in contact with the person and may be used for service.

After all methods to research have been used and if you still don't have a work or residential address, then file a motion with the court for alternate service. In Massachusetts, and probably other states, the judge will want to use the best method of service that is calculated to actually reach the Defendant. Service can be made by email, text messaging, messaging through social media, or by relatives. The motion should be accompanied by a detailed affidavit showing all of the internet research and any relevant web pages.

If after all of these steps, the person can't be located, service by publication may be approved by a judge. Service by publication is expensive and usually ineffectual. However, it may be the only method available. Alternate service can be complicated for individuals. A local attorney can guide you through the process and help you locate your defendant.   

Sunday, October 18, 2015

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

By presidential proclamation, October was declared to be National Violence Awareness Month. Nobody should be subject to domestic violence. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship you need to get help. You can get information about domestic abuse from the Frequently Asked Questions about abuse at my web site. You can talk to an attorney or even call the police. Understanding your options may help you take steps to protect yourself. The courts can issue restraining orders to protect against violence and, in certain circumstances, can make orders of child custody and support. If you are in an abusive situation there are people and services who can help you.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

You can commit criminal acts by owning or using surveillance and security systems.

The cost of home security and surveillance systems has decreased so that now everybody can afford a system. Internet providers offer home security systems. Some people use hidden cameras like nanny cams to keep an eye on babysitters. The news contains stories of people who use home security systems to catch burglers in the act. While such security systesm have many benefits they can also cause people to commit criminal acts.

Most states have laws that prohibit recording of voice communications without permission or a court order. These are generally called wiretapping laws. While we usually think of wiretapping as meaning telephone calls the laws are usually written broadly to cover all voice communications. Some states allow recording of such conversations if one person to the conversation gives permission. Other states, including Massachusetts, require all parties to the conversation to grant permission before the conversation can be recorded. Recording a conversation without permission is a crime in most states. In Massachusetts, making an unathorized voice recording is a felony. This means that making a recording of a person's voice without their permission can result in person being sentenced to imprisonment in the state prison. The Massachusetts wiretapping law goes even further and makes it a crime to possess hidden equipment that is capable of making voice recordings. Mass.Gen.L. c. 272, § 99.

Hidden cameras as part of a home or office security system do not violate any laws. However, microphones are probably not lawful as they can record voices. Merely having microphones as part of a home security system can result in a criminal conviction. Of course, you can have microphones as part of the security system as long as you obtain permission from the person you are recording. You may be able to have the equivalent of permission by using signs that disclose the recordings. Such disclosures would probably defeat the purpose of having the microphones in the first place but would be adequate to prevent commission of a crime.

If you own or want to purchase a security system you should consult an attorney to find out what is permitted for recordings in your state.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Prepare for a divorce—create a household inventory

In most cases, people anticipate a divorce before it happens. While some actions taken before a divorce can receive an adverse reaction from a spouse, creating an inventory should not. Creating an inventory can be helpful in case you suffer an insurance loss such as fire, theft, or flood. An inventory can also be helpful in a divorce.

In a divorce the two spouses will have to divide the household belongings. Sometimes this occurs leisurely and sometimes in a rush. An inventory will make a split easier. If a court issues an order removing one party from the house having an inventory will make it easier for that person to receive a fair distribution of the household assets. If you are dividing items from memory you are likely to forget items that you care about.

Another benefit of having a household inventory is to reduce the potential for items to disappear. After a person who is out of the house takes their initial list of items it is much more difficult to obtain items from the house. That book that you received from your grandmother is likely to be thrown out if you don't retrieve it in the initial group of items. With digital photography you can incorporate photographs into your inventory.  By having a list you can designate items to retrieve later and avoid having them thrown out or sold.

The earlier you start the inventory the better off you are. It is also helpful to consult an experienceddivorce lawyer as early as possible. Both an inventory and a divorce lawyer can help you work through the difficult times created by a divorce.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Natick Judge enjoins Macy's for shoplifting fines

Judge Douglas Stoddard, a District Court Judge in Natick, Mass. has enjoined Macy's from demanding that shoplifters pay a $500.00 civil fine to Macy's when they are caught by the store.  Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 231, Section 85R-1/2 states that shoplifters ". . . shall be liable in tort to the merchant for damages for not less than fifty nor more than five hundred dollars. . ."  Many stores claim that this law means that a shoplifter owes the store $500.00 if they are caught by the store.  The stores are wrong.  The law means that if the store sues shoplifters in court a judge may award civil damages of up to $500.00.  Macy's has no right to collect $500.00 until after a Judge awarded them damages.

Macy's had a practice of detaining shoplifters and telling them that "if they paid the $500 fine, they would not be civilly sued in court and some said they were told they would not be arrested."  In some cases, people paid the $500.00 and were then turned over to the police who arrested them.  When the cases came before Natick District Court, Judge Stoddard learned of the practices of the store and issued an injunction against the store.The Judge stated “I’m not sure if I have the legal authority to do what I’m doing, but I believe I do have the power to right what’s wrong.  I don’t think I’m asking for much.”

What Macy's was doing was not only wrong, it was criminal.  Massachusetts is a common law state.  This means that crimes exist that were created by English judges before the American Revolution.  Some of these crimes are still in existence.  Macy's actions constituted the common law crimes of compounding a crime and misprision of a crime.  In addition, their actions also constituted the statutory crime of extortion.  

Compounding a crime occurs when a person enters into  an agreement for one person to pay money in exchange for an agreement to not prosecute the crime.  In Massachusetts only the District Attorney or the Attorney General can agree that a crime won't be prosecuted.  Any other person who agrees that a crime won't be prosecuted is committing a criminal act.  If Macy's accepts money and agrees that a shoplifter won't be prosecuted then Macy's has committed the crime of compounding.

If Macy's, having agreed that a crime shall not be reported to the police fails to report the crime then they have committed the crime of misprision of a crime.  Every citizen has the duty to report crimes to the government.  In our society we don't prosecute people who merely fail to report crimes.  However, if a person has received money and then fails to report the crime then they may be prosecuted for misprision.  Compounding is the crime of making the agreement not to prosecute.  Misprision is the act of failing to report the crime.

When Macy's asked for money in exchange for not prosecuting the shoplifter, they committed the crime of extortion.  The elements of extortion are (1) a malicious threat (2) made to a named person (3) to accuse someone of a crime or to injure someone's person or property (4) with intent to extort money. Mass.G.L. c. 265, § 25.  This means that Macy's committed three separate and distinct criminal acts.  When they asked form money the committed extortion.  When they agree to not prosecute they committed compounding of a crime.  If they took the money and then failed to report the shoplifter they committed the crime of misprision.  

When settling a civil case that has the potential for criminal charges, parties want to eliminate the ability to be criminally prosecuted.  This can't be done without violating criminal laws.  When I have encountered this problem in my practice I have agreed to a "gag order" as part of the settlement.  A gag order typically states that neither party can talk about the facts of the case or the settlement without creating civil penalties.  However, I always include language that states that the gag order shall not apply if there is a duty to disclose the information including, but not limited to, disclosure to law enforcement officials.  This exception means that the gag order does not violate any criminal laws.  An attorney who understands the common law crimes should always include language of this nature.  

Macy's practice of demanding a civil penalty without a judgment from a court should cease immediately.  Since the cost of going to court is more than the potential $500.00 recovery this means that it is unlikely that any shoplifters will ever pay the civil penalty.  However, it also means that Macy's will stop violating criminal laws.   

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cyber harassment can be very expensive.

The internet and social media has created new opportunities for people to harass and harm others. One person who used the internet to harass a neighbor found it very expensive as a Massachusetts court has issued a judgment of 4.8 million dollars for cyber harassment and another court found him and his wife guilty of criminal harassment and sentenced them to jail.

Two neighbors, Johnson and Lyons had a real estate dispute about Johnson's plans to build a 4,500 square foot house. Johnson and his wife used the internet to harass Lyons. He placed a false ad on craigslist which falsely stated that he had a deceased son. The craiglist ads were designed to have people respond late at night so that it interfered with the Lyons's sleep. Johnson caused emails and letters to be sent falsely alleging that Lyons had molested his own son and an underage employee. Johnson subscribed Lyons to a number of organizations including organizations for nudists and gays.  Lyons sued Johnson for intentional infliction of emotional distress. After a jury trial, Lyons was awarded $4.8 million dollars in damages. The Johnsons were also prosecuted for criminal charges of harassment. This resulted in convictions for both Johnson and his wife and they were both sentenced to jail terms.

It is safe to assume that not every cyber harassment case will result in multi-million dollar verdicts and jail terms. However, this case shows that existing laws can address criminal behavior that uses new technology. If you are a victim of cyber harassment you should go to the police. You may also find it helpful to consult a Massachusetts attorney to advice you about your rights and how to protect yourself.  

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Death and Facebook. The Legacy Feature.

A friend of mine died and his wife posted his death and funeral arrangements on his Facebook page. In this era of social media, Facebook is a natural and expected forum to notify friends and relatives of such information. Unfortunately, use of his Facebook account was unauthorized by Facebook and constituted criminal behaviour under both Massachusetts and Federal law. At the time of his death, his wife had no other way to use his Facebook account to provide notice. Since that time, Facebook has changed its policies and now has a Legacy feature for memorization of Facebook pages after death.

Facebook's Terms of Service states: “You will not share your password let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.” In other words, the only authorized user of a Facebook page is the registered owner. There is no exception for family members after death. Authorization is important because both Massachusetts and Federal law make it a crime for any person who is not an authorized user to access a computer. Since using Facebook means that a user accesses Facebook's computer, any person who is not authorized by Facebook and uses another person's account is committing a crime. Massachusetts General Laws chapter 266, section120F punishes unauthorized computer access by up to thirty days in jail and a one thousand dollar fine. United States Code Title 18Section 1030 punishes unauthorized computer access by up to twenty years in prison and fines. Permission to use a Facebook account by the registered owner of the account is still a crime because Facebook doesn't allow such permission. A widow posting information about her husband's death is unauthorized and a criminal act.

Facebook has recognized people's desires to use Facebook accounts after death and has created a new feature called Legacy. During a person's life, they can designate a person as a “Legacy Contact.” This person will have limited rights to access a Facebook account after a person dies. The Legacy Contact can post a final message and Memorialize the account. Memorialization freezes the account, indicates that the owner died and may allow others to share memories on the account.

Every individual with a Facebook account should consider a legacy contact. This should become part of estate planning and become just as routine as writing a will or making pre-death funeral arrangements. Unauthorized computer access can have serious criminal consequences. A lawyer can help understand how to avoid violating the law and still enjoy social media.