Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Written by Annie Bares

Social networking sites are making it easier to connect with friends old and new — but those permanent posts can be costly.

Technology makes things harder to get away with. Without it, Sandra Bullock would still be on the blind side of husband Jesse James’ Neo-Nazi affair, Tiger Woods could still be on top of his game, and Mark Sanford might still be hiking the Appalachian Trail. While text messaging, social networking sites and email have made it easier to connect with someone new, they’ve also increased the odds of getting caught. And the effects of these technologies are being felt just as often in Acadiana as in Hollywood.

“There isn’t a contested case that I deal with these days that doesn’t have an element of Facebook in it,” says local attorney Marshall Montgomery of his experience with social networking sites’ involvement in divorce and family law.  
Recently he’s seen many cases where divorces are caused by infidelity that began with seemingly innocent interactions on social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace. “One client got hooked up with an old classmate whom she went off and had an affair in another state with.”

In addition to leading to extramarital affairs, says Montgomery, these new technologies make it harder to hide the evidence of them. “I had a client who told his wife he was going hunting for the weekend and went off from Arizona to Lafayette for a long weekend with an old girlfriend that he reconnected with through Facebook,” adds Montgomery. “And his wife found out about it through Facebook.”

Attorney Charley Hutchens says technology is playing an
increasingly larger role in divorce cases.
Lafayette lawyer Charley Hutchens echoes this sentiment offering some seemingly simple advice: “People who are 35 and married ought not go on Facebook and say that they are 25 and single on a computer that their spouse has access to.”
Hutchens’ practice has also seen an increase in the involvement of all technology in divorce proceedings, explaining that problems arise because people don’t think about the permanence of their technological communications. “You can transcribe and download texts. And email, email is permanent,” he says.

And sometimes, the attorney adds, the evidence of an affair isn’t just texted sweet nothings or email innuendo; it’s pornographic. “One guy sent an electronic video to his girlfriend of them having sex, but he sent it to her on a computer to which his wife had access.”

Information posted on social networking sites is now also used as evidence in child custody cases. “I am amazed at what people are posting on Facebook and MySpace even while they are in the middle of a custody battle with their spouse,” says area lawyer George Knox. “They or their friends will post pictures of themselves getting drunk at La Fonda or some other drinking establishment, and others will even post day-after shots of themselves passed out at someone’s house or apartment. While their friends may think that it is funny or cute to post such pictures on the Internet, it becomes admissible evidence at a custody trial if the photographs fall into the hands of the opposition.” Knox explains that photographs of this nature ultimately will cause a judge to question the decision-making abilities of a parent in a custody case. “For whatever reason, people seem to have a false sense of security that when such photographs are posted on Facebook or MySpace they are somehow protected and only their personally selected friends will be able to view the photos and no one else.” The attorney continues, “The truth is that once these photos are out on the Internet, they are out in the public domain for anyone to see, and they can certainly be used as evidence in a custody trial.”

Hutchens has seen the downside of making “party pics” — which seemed like a good idea at the time — public in custody cases. “When you handle a custody matter, everything’s an issue. There’s the moral fitness of a prospective parent, and if you have as your MySpace photo a picture of a parent with a joint in his hand, blowing smoke in his baby’s face, that’s probably going to cost you your kid. Then there’s a case of another guy, he has a picture on Facebook of him and his 3-year-old surrounded by the ladies of Tilted Kilt, and they’re not bad pictures, but that’s probably going to cause you some trouble.”

Montgomery explains that aspects of messy divorce proceedings, which have been traditionally plagued with “he-said, she-said” exchanges, become more decisive because of information posted on the Internet. “Now clients come in with binders full of Facebook pages.” You no longer hear, “I didn’t do that,” he says, “because everything is there.”

Despite that sites such as Facebook and MySpace advertise the availability of privacy settings, it is often possible to find anything using a different account. And even if someone may realize the error in their over-sharing ways and attempt to delete the record of it, printers and screenshots ensure that nothing is truly erasable.

“It puzzles me that people haven’t thought through that,” Knox says of the false sense of security that people seem to have with privacy settings. “When it’s out, it’s out.”

But it is still easy to utilize the latest technology, have a lot of fun with it and avoid any of these potential problems: “You shouldn’t say or write anything that you wouldn’t want your 3-year-old or grade school teacher to see,” Montgomery says.

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