Back in the dark ages, like 2005, lawyers had to spend money, time and effort to glean juicy morsels for their cases. A basic custody battle could mean a maze of private investigators, subpoenas and conversations with neighbors.
Now it's like this: Open browser. Click. Gasp. Print.
"The thing we do routinely, no exception to the rule, is sweep all of the social-networking sites starting with Facebook," Tampa family lawyer Catherine Real said. "All the significant names are searched, and not only do we print out copies of the pages, we hold onto the screen shots so we can show it in court on our Mac."
Our obsession with posting every second of life online has brought a wave of serendipity for lawyers. Their jobs have gotten more salacious in the past few years, and easier in some ways. People make it simple. They say child support is too high, then post photos of a new Lexus. They claim to be home with the kids, then turn up tagged in sloppy bar photos.
"Clients who have participated in social media have become much more vulnerable," said Joseph Cordell, partner in national law firm Cordell & Cordell. "You have access to inner thoughts and frank conversations that in the past were virtually unheard of."
In September, the New York Bar State Bar Association issued an opinion about Facebook. Using the evidence is fine, it said, as long as lawyers aren't deceptive about getting it — for example, posing as a friend to get into the page.
Florida courtrooms accept Facebook evidence to different degrees. Tampa Bay is receptive to the Internet, attorneys say, but more bucolic locations still think rooting through Facebook is an invasion of privacy akin to wiretapping. Florida has no-fault divorces, so in those instances, blame doesn't matter. At the very least, Facebook flubs diminish reputations and discredit stories.
"A party testifies as to X, but the Facebook says Y," said Pinellas Circuit Judge Peter Ramsberger. "They're trying to show the court that they might not have credibility."
We've seen it happen here.
There's the case of John France, whose first wife Lynn cried bigamy when she found Facebook photos of John in a Prince Charming costume getting married at Disney World. John France, who said the first marriage wasn't legal, nonetheless came away with the nickname "Facebook bigamist."
Jaimie Merk, dubbed the "Botox Bandit" for stealing cosmetic procedures, became a fugitive when she illegally left Tampa for New York. Meanwhile, her Facebook offered that she had moved to New Jersey. And in August, she posted: Beautiful weather in NYC!! I could NOT be happier living here!!
Technology was key in the 2010 murder trial of Rachel Wade, a Pinellas Park teen who killed Sarah Ludemann amid a love triangle. The murder capped off months of barbs about Josh Camacho traded via MySpace.
"They would go back and forth on MySpace about who I was going to be with," Camacho testified in court.
Young people are prolific online. They tend to write openly about fighting in the home. And their Facebook pages become dumping grounds when Mom and Dad want to unload. During one custody case, Real said a child threatened suicide online.
"We get injunctions prohibiting the parents from trashing each other," Real said. "The tragedy is to look at the postings of the kids, to listen to their cry for help and all the angst expressed."
GPS tracking features on Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare help when people take their children on the run, said Cordell, whose firm has an office in Tampa. One client's ex-wife had moved her children to eight different locations, he said.
But pictures are the biggest tell. One woman showed up online snorting cocaine off of a key, he said. Another held a bottle of Grey Goose vodka in one hand and a baby in the other.
During one custody battle, a mother posted photos of her children. A friend commented.
The children don't look much like him.
The mother replied.
That's because they're not his.