MORRISTOWN, N.J. - A woman accused of impersonating her boyfriend on
a fake Facebook page and posting inflammatory comments can be
prosecuted for identity theft, a judge ruled Wednesday in a case that
could have wider implications for American cyber-speech.
Thornton was indicted last year on one count of fourth-degree identity
theft, a crime punishable by a maximum 18-month prison term upon
conviction. Assistant Prosecutor Robert Schwartz said she created the
Facebook page using photos and personal information about her
ex-boyfriend, a police detective in northern New Jersey, and posted
comments purported to be from him.
According to grand jury
testimony recited in court Wednesday, among the comments posted on the
page were that the ex-boyfriend, a narcotics detective, was “high all
the time,” had herpes and frequented prostitutes and escort services.
“I'm a sick piece of scum with a gun,” Thornton allegedly wrote.
issue is a New Jersey law that makes it illegal to impersonate someone
“for the purpose of obtaining a benefit for himself or another or to
injure or defraud another.”
Attorney Richard Roberts,
representing Thornton, attempted to have the case dismissed on the
grounds that the law makes no mention of electronic communications. New
Jersey's legislature is reviewing an amendment that would add that
provision to the law; Roberts argued Wednesday that the mere fact that
the law could be amended amounts to a tacit admission that the current
one doesn't cover his client's alleged actions.
“How do you
quantify the harm?” he asked. “There was no money involved. We live in
the real world where words are thrown around all the time. How does
that rise to the level of what is in this statute?”
State Superior Court Judge David Ironson disagreed and said the law was “clear and unambiguous.”
fact that the means of committing the crime are not set forth in the
statute doesn't lead to the conclusion that the defendant didn't commit
the crime,” he said.
Thornton didn't comment on the decision after the hearing. She is next due in court for a pretrial conference on Dec. 7.
issue of online impersonation and cyber-bullying came to the forefront
after a 13-year-old girl committed suicide in a St. Louis suburb in
2006. It was later revealed that she had been targeted online by a
fictitious 13-year-old boy whose MySpace page had been created by the
mother of a teenage girl. Prosecutors contended Lori Drew sought to
humiliate the 13-year-old because she suspected the girl had spread
rumours about Drew's teenage daughter.
Drew was convicted on
three misdemeanour counts of accessing computers without authorization,
but a federal judge in 2009 threw out the convictions.
There are no criminal cases in New Jersey that offer any precedents, Roberts said Wednesday.
New Jersey's identity theft law could prompt a review of numerous other
laws, said Megan Erickson, an Iowa-based attorney who blogs about
social media and the law.
“If the legislature specifically
references online conduct in one statute, should it take an inventory
of how all others laws may apply in the context of the Internet and
amend them as well?” she said.
So far, only California and New
York have laws specifically banning online identity theft. Shear said
those states are leading the way largely because of the large number of
celebrities who live in them. But he said such laws can get tricky to
enforce because it's legally thorny when the alleged offender is out of
“There may need to be some national conversation in the
future about the Internet,” Shear said. “The Internet knows no
AP Writer Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield contributed to this report.