Facebook & Courtroom Credibility

Are you ready to face all your online postings on cross examination in open court? Val Van Brocklin explains how your credibility can be impeached through social media and the Internet.


Switching the freight train's tracks

If I needed any more evidence that social media has pervaded every crevice of our lives, I got it in recent weeks.

  • The Social Network - The movie, released last year. As of January 12, 2011 it had won Best Picture from all leading trophy groups: National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics and was the odds on favorite for the Golden Globe and Oscar.
  • Mark Zuckerberg - Facebook's founder and CEO became TIME magazine's youngest Person of the Year.
  • Mark Zuckerberg - same as above, became the youngest billionaire.
  • Facebook hit 500 million users. That would make it the 3rd largest nation - behind China and India and well ahead of the U.S.
  • Social media has now closed the parentheses on our romantic lives. After getting started with eHarmony or Match.com we deal with a bad break up with sites like IHateMyEx.com or YouBrokeUpHow.com.
  • There's even a web site and new book to help us deal with our digital afterlife.

For the sake of disclosure, I need to confess I don't do social media. I have no Facebook, Youtube, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Photobucket, LinkedIn, Digg, Ning or Yelp page. (And that's just the Top 10 of the Top 50 Social Media Resources. Web link below.) Nor have I accepted any invitation to become someone's "friend."

I don't consider myself a Luddite. I'm just not that social. I'm also not that trusting. I don't trust other users to employ the same precautions I think are common sense and I don't trust hackers or the security against them. Finally, I don't have enough free time as it is.

That said, I understand that trying to ignore social media is like trying to ignore a freight train while walking the tracks. I also understand I now have to address social media in preparing officers to testify effectively.

Are you ready to face ALL your internet postings on cross examination?

I write about and train on winning courtroom testimony for law enforcement officers. In my training I often ask officers

What is the first thing you should do to start preparing for your courtroom appearance in a particular case?

Commonly, the answer is,

Review my report.

I then advise officers to start before that and be thinking about testifying while they write their report. This will raise their awareness. It will have them more vigilant about how the defense might misconstrue, misrepresent or otherwise use something in their report against them and thereby help them avoid some common but avoidable mistakes.

Now I need to take officers a GIANT step back even before they are writing their report. Instead, officers need to be thinking about their courtroom appearance, and their "favorite" criminal defense (or civil plaintiff's) attorney each and every time they post anything on social media.

"The Officer Who Posted Too Much on MySpace" clearly hadn't done that. Officer Vaughan Ettienne arrested Gary Waters for felony possession of a 9mm Beretta and a bagful of ammunition. Waters also ended up being charged with the misdemeanor of resisting arrest. The case went to trial in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn and rested, in large part, on Officer Ettienne's credibility.

Waters claimed that Officer Ettienne and his partner stopped him, beat him, and then planted a gun on him to justify the beating. When the case started, the defense was going to focus on Officer Ettienne's use of steroids (with a doctor's prescription) and argue it could have caused an irrational rage. Then the defense got a gift that kept on giving - Officer Ettienne's own postings on the internet.

The day before trial Ettienne posted a description of his mood on a MySpace account as devious. Besides this, jurors learned that a few weeks before trial, the officer posted on his Facebook page:

Vaughan is watching 'Training Day' to brush up on proper police procedure.
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