The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: facebook

Three police officers punished for NOT stopping photographs being taken

Photographs and police officers world wide have a pretty tortured history, even more so since the rise of anti terrorist legislation. I should declare an interest — I’m one of those amateur photographers you hear complaining that the police have stopped them taking photos for somewhat iffy reasons, in my case it was a potential breach of the peace (“but we’ll let you off with a warning”). The experience has utterly changed how I look at the police ever since.

There’s a rather well reported example of one of the BBC’s press photographers “having his collar felt” as he took photographs of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. You hear stories of people taking photos of the blue light on police stations receiving similar treatment. There’s been motions in Parliament to clarify the lack of powers that the police actually have to stop regular people taking photos. The Home Office has given guidance (sadly in my view leaving it down to the regions rather than actually giving guidance for the whole country). The G20 protests in London are a smörgåsbord of examples which are still only coming to light – the Metropolitan Police Press Office sending out letters demanding that photographs of police officers hiding their badge numbers be destroyed for one. This is the background I read this particular story on — the apparent view that photographers are terrorists planning something.

The basic facts are that four, presumably, drunk young women were involved in an alleged assault in a bar on a Saturday night two weeks ago and were taken to a Staffordshire police station to give statements. That’s perfectly normal and fine. However, something happened and they ran amok as only drunk people can. The end result is that a lot of reasonably salacious images ended up Facebook. Egg was on face and so on. The Tax Payers Alliance absolutely hates the wasted police resources they feel this represents and they’re getting their boot in too.

Assistant Chief Constable Mick Harrison is quoted in today’s Metro (Tuesday, December 15, 2009, pg 7) as saying he was “extremely disappointed” by the event. “Officers made attempts to talk to the women about their behaviour and to stop them taking photographs for security reasons — these were not heeded or firmly enforced.”

This is a relatively innocuous quote but, given that the pictures in question were the result of party goers putting on police hats and taking photos of each other on their phones we should probably assume that there was not exactly an Al Qaeda attack going on. I think the idea that there was a security risk (except, perhaps, to the male officers’ virtue) is actually pretty laughable. I know that there really isn’t the whole story expressed in the dozen or so newspaper reports over the last couple of days so I thought I’d do it properly and do some research. Unfortunately Staffordshire police force doesn’t seem to have any way for members of the public to ring up and ask the police questions, it seems limited to reporting crimes or a press office. I resorted to calling the press office on the off chance but that naturally leads to the ” ‘Hello, I’m hoping you could answer a couple of questions’ ‘Are you press?’ ‘No’ ‘Well no then’ ” conversation that doesn’t really help anyone. In the absence of other information it sounds like it’s just a regular police station where you question witnesses, fill out your reports and hold antisocial drunks overnight as opposed to a nuclear silo.

It’s absolutely, undeniably not what the police should be doing on a Saturday night and it’s very embarrassing for the police but I think we really need to avoid defining everything that embarrasses the police as a security risk.

Joel Fights Back

A file sharing notice is about the most serious letter that can come “from the Internet” for anyone. This can range between a polite “stop and delete all the songs you downloaded and don’t do it again” to a flat out demand for money. There have been a vast number of allegedly speculative letters sent out asking for a cash payment for the lawyers to go away with threats, and I think in context it is legally accurate to use the word, that the situation will escalate to court action (and faced with the option of having to prove a negative in front of a court an unknown number of people have simply paid up.

It is not all bad for the general public, since the vast majority of “law firms” who will mass mail requests for money are from England these can often be turned off by pointing out that you live in Scotland and there is a jurisdictional difference. A polite response asking for “clarification” on this “confusing point” can be all that an individual needs to do to make some of the less scrupulous firms give up and head for an easier target.

There can be no doubt that some of the letters do honestly arrive to people who illegally share files but the stories of university printers being threatened with legal action only serve to create an unfavourable blacklash in the press against the heavy handed tactics that have defined the public opinion of the industry. One of the biggest issues is the lack of actual, before a judge, court cases in this area because the vast majority of people settle before it goes that far. In the US there have been two main cases – Jammie Thomas which is now declared to be a mistrial and Joel Tenenbaum. In the first case the judge commented that the damages sought were probably 1000 times too much and has now been decided to be a miscarriage of justice but the second case is going much better for Joel. Jammie Thomas’s lawyer was inexperienced in this new area of law and the defence was not perhaps as persuasive as it could be. Joel instead is being defended by Professor Charles Nesson and a sizeable group of his students from Harvard Law School who is rather more experienced in this field and has brought a surprising amount of media attention to the case and has worked hard to capture the goodwill that surrounds people defending themselves against the RIAA.

The professor is clearly a canny lawyer and the Joel Fights Back campaign is a which uses nearly as much online content as Vote Obama ‘08 and has a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, an online petition and a Paypal fund raiser (the link’s to Joel’s own, I promise) along with some fantastic features – “Think like a Lawyer (Contribute to Joel’s Defence)”, “Legal Documents” and “Share your stories”. These are designed to get the general public interested in the case and to raise awareness of the issues involved. The move to make it quite interactive is a masterstroke – the suggestion that Joe Public can suggest questions to give to the big names in file sharing litigation under oath during cross examination is a unique opportunity and one which a lot of people have already expressed interest in.

The latest move Professor Nesson attempted was to have the court action broadcast online. I would highly recommend the opportunity to watch a civil case from a foreign jurisdiction, the US isn’t too different from our adversarial selves but that doesn’t mean that watching it’s not an opportunity that few Scottish students would be able to normally have. Broaden your legal experience when this is broadcast. Or will it, because the RIAA has immediately filed an appeal to have this case heard in camera. This is interesting because it gives a strong public impression that the RIAA don’t want their litigation procedure to be aired in public.

Joel himself is quite impressive – after receiving the initial demand for $3500 he rang the number on the letter and attempted to negotiate a settlement $500 instead, he even sent them a money order for that amount. A few years later he was sent summons and the scenario I have just mentioned began.

This case bears watching because it has ramifications on nearly all Internet users and is the first time the big law teams representing the anti file sharing lobby have really been answered by any party with at all similar resources. While there have been cases of the wicker man of file sharing used as a revenue gathering tactic by the unscrupulous there are issues, such as the punitive penalties the RIAA would like to see file sharers forced to pay, which need to be finally decided in open court.

Joe’s campaign site is at http://joelfightsback.com/

Woman dismissed from jury for Facebook postings

There was a short piece in Monday’s Guardian:

Juror shares trial details on Facebook

“A female juror was dismissed from a trial after posting details of the case on Facebook and asking friends whether they thought the defendants were guilty.

The woman went against strict rules forbidding jurors from discussing cases with family and friends by posting details of the sexual assault and child abduction trial on the social networking site.”

I think a number of issues are quite salient here – firstly it’s the seriousness of the case, I don’t like the connections that the two charges conjure up personally and I think it’s pretty horrible if she was posting this. Especially since the regular media would be working with a child protection restriction due to the age of the victim. Secondly it’s the fact that she was asking for other peoples’ opinions on the case. Think about the ramifications of this – for a few, short hours or days there was a poll on Facebook that actually meant something. This is a very unusual state of affairs indeed.

The next issue is the effect that the additional scale of democracy would have had on the legitimacy of that trial – if 12 peers is enough to convict a person of a crime, then what does 100 votes on the matter mean?

While it’s clear that there is no way that the people from Facebook would have had the information required to make any sort of reasoned judgement it’s an interesting thought – benches of 5 judges produce more persuasive case law that judges sitting alone, does this extend to juries too?

Facebook, Jurors and the Veil (Law Actually)