It’s unlikely to survive a court challenge, but a Texas woman was arrested on the felony charge of retaliation. The law makes it a felony to retaliate against a law enforcement officer in such a way that “intentionally or knowingly harms or threatens to harm another by an unlawful act.” The act in question was posting the undercover officer’s photo on Facebook.
Melissa Walthall of Mesquite, Texas, used a publicly available picture of an undercover police officer who testified against her friend George Pickens at his drug trial. The trick for prosecutors will be to make a Facebook posting an “unlawful act.”
According to reports in the Dallas News, the Facebook posting identified the man in the picture as an undercover officer with the caption, “Anyone know this [expletive]?” Ironically, the photo was taken from the officer’s profile on Facebook.
If the charges are pursued, the case will hinge around identifying the picture as that of an officer, rather than the picture itself. This follows a rather more flagrant “outing” by Pickens himself, who printed up flyers with the picture to distribute locally.
The usual defense in such cases is based on freedom of speech issues, something Texans take very seriously. Police officers—even undercover narcotics officers—are public servants, and courts have found that the burden to prove secrecy necessary is on the police, not the public. Furthermore, the officer appeared in a public venue at a trial. Even granting that outing him will harm his ability to do his job, proving endangerment is more difficult.
A conviction would mean up to 10 years in jail.
The police are already aware of the ever-present risk social media plays. It’s even become an investigative tool, and police commonly take a look to see what’s online during an investigation. According to the report:
Mitch Landry, deputy executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association in Austin, said his organization has discussed with its members the perils of social media — particularly for those involved in undercover work. “Our best advice is, if you don’t want that information out there, don’t have those accounts,” Landry said. “There’s no way to be truly anonymous if you have a Facebook page.”
We can probably assume there was a lot of deleting going on at police HQ after this story broke.