Oversharing on Social Media Can Cost You

Cody W. Dowden, Attorney at Law

According to Facebook there are more than one BILLION active accounts on their platform. And many users are in the habit of posting photographs, sending messages, and generally sharing nearly every facet of their lives on a near-daily basis. The problem with incessantly sharing on Facebook is that, although you may intend to keep close friends and family apprised of your daily goings-on, they may not be the only people looking.

Take for instance the case of Christopher Tracy Payne-Owens. Chris lives in Iowa, and has a criminal record. In fact, Chris had previously been convicted of a felony, which meant he was not supposed to be in possession of a firearm. In January 2014, investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) came across Chris’s Facebook page. On Chris’s Facebook page they found a photograph from November 2012 showing him with what appeared to be a .45-caliber 1911-style handgun in his waistband. He was also flashing what was believed to be a gang sign. ATF got a warrant to search Chris’s Facebook page and found two messages he had sent privately to another individual shortly after posting the photograph talking about his “big 45” on his hip.

Using the photographic evidence, along with the messages sent, Chris was indicted on federal firearm charges. At trial the prosecution argued to the jury that the combination of the picture of the firearm, the messages talking about the firearm, and the apparent gang affiliation all lead to the conclusion that the firearm in the picture was real, and because Chris was a convicted felon that he was in violation of federal law.

Here’s the kicker: the physical gun WAS NEVER FOUND. In fact, an expert witness who testified for the prosecution even stated, under oath, that while the pistol appeared real, he could not testify with complete certainty that the gun in the picture was in fact a real, operating pistol. However, when the jury was presented with all the circumstantial evidence (evidence of gang affiliation, messages from Chris talking about his new gun, photographs of the gun itself), the jury found the prosecution had met its burden of proof and found Chris guilty as charged, sentencing him to 63 months in federal prison. That’s over 5 years in prison for a picture posted in 2012, not found until 2014, and never backed up with the weapon in the photo.

Facebook isn’t the first social media platform, and it certainly isn’t the only one. But it’s the biggest one, and for some reason people find it necessary to share every detail of their lives with the whole world on a scale never before possible. But sometimes people share too much, and if you’re doing something you aren’t supposed to be doing, sharing can cost you. So be careful with what you share; you never know who is listening.

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