Saturday, October 18, 2014

Is sexting naked pictures distribution of pornography?

From time to time I hear stories of the prosecution of teenagers for possession and distribution of child pornography as a result of sending or re-sending pictures through text messaging. Typically, these stories involve a young teenager who takes a naked “selfie” and then texts it to a friend. The friend then sends it to a lot of friends with the result that school officials hear of the distribution of the picture. The police get notified and arrests are made for possession and distribution of child pornography. So, are naked selfies child pornography? Can a person be arrested for texting these naked pictures?

In most cases, naked pictures of one self or “selfies” are not pornography. Even full frontal nudity pictures of young children and young teenagers are probably not pornography. In other words, in order to be considered pornographic, there must be more than just nudity. It doesn't matter if it is a boy or a girl, full nudity or partial nudity, there must be more than nudity to make the picture pornographic.
Since 1973 the United States has had one basic definition of obscenity (which includes pornography):
"(a) whether the 'average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and
(c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."  M
iller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973),
Legal disputes over selfies taken by children usually focus on the second element of depiction in a patently offensive way of sexual conduct. Naked selfies taken by teenagers are usually pictures of the teenager alone. No other person is in the picture. While some selfies could involve more than mere nudity, the vast majority of these pictures are just nude pictures. In a recent case in Massachusetts, the Court looked at this issue in the context of a convicted sex offender who possessed a number of pictures of naked children while he was in prison. Commonwealth v. Rex, No. SJC–11480 (July 9, 2014). The court found that merely naked pictures cannot be considered pornography. There must be more. Even in the context of a convicted sex offender in prison, nude pictures were not considered obscene. The Court describe six factors to consider to determine if the pictures could be considered pornographic:
1) whether the focal point of the visual depiction is on the child's genitalia or pubic area;
2) whether the setting of the visual depiction is sexually suggestive, i.e., in a place or pose generally associated with sexual activity;
3) whether the child is depicted in an unnatural pose, or in inappropriate attire, considering the age of the child;
4) whether the child is fully or partially clothed, or nude;
5) whether the visual depiction suggests sexual coyness or a willingness to engage in sexual activity; [and]
6) whether the visual depiction is intended or designed to elicit a sexual response in the viewer.” The Court took these factors from a prior case: United States v. Dost, 636 F.Supp. 828, 832 (S.D .Cal.1986), aff'd sub nom. United States v. Wiegand, 812 F.2d 1239, 1244 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 856 (1987).

Nude selfies, without something in addition to the nudity, cannot be considered obscene or pornographic. Texting pictures of this type can not be considered distribution of child pornography. Possession of these pictures on a cell phone or computer can not be the basis for a criminal prosecution.
Hopefully this article will not encourage anybody to take naked pictures of themselves and to text them to others. It is a bad idea and hopefully recent stories of the leaking of naked pictures of celebrities from hackers should be a deterent to people. However, if someone is approached by the police for sending or receiving naked pictures, then they should consult an attorney who can advice them on the laws concerning pornography. It is better to have an attorney intervene and maybe stop a prosecution than having a prosecution started, published in newspapers, and then dismissed. Consulting an attorney quickly may prevent injury through stories in local media.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What is the legal residence of a child of divorced parents?

Many people who get divorced live in different towns from their ex-spouse. They will sometimes choose between the two school systems and send their children to the better school. This means that the better school system will have more students and incur more costs. If a child of divorced parents requires additional services due to special needs, the cost can be substantial. As a result, many school systems try to exclude some students under the argument that they don't reside in the town where they attend school.

According to the law, adults are allowed one domicile or legal residence. Domicile is the place where a person intends to permenently reside. There is a long history of case law that sets forth rules to , determine the residency of adults. The law is much simpler as it applies to children: Children have the domicile of their parents. If their parents don't live together then children can have two domiciles. If the parents are divorced and the parents have joint legal custody then children will have two domiciles. This is true even if they never sleep at one parent's home.

In a recent case, the Town of Wayland formulated a rule to determine if children of divorced parents can attend school in Wayland.  Ames v. Town of Wayland, Middlesex Superior Court (No. 14-6717) (August 13, 2014.) The rule was called the “pillow count” rule and required children to sleep in Wayland for at least three out of five nights. When this rule resulted in a child of divorced parents becoming excluded from the Wayland schools, the child's parents appealed. A Superior Court Justice held that the child may attend the Wayland schools despite the fact that he lived in Wayland only three out of fourteen nights.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Education has always ruled that children can attend school in the school system where one of the parents reside and that the decision belongs to the parents and not the school system. In my practice, I have encountered this problem from time to time. I have found that schools generally drop their opposition when faced with the threat of litigation. Unfortunately, I found that parents have to hire attorneys to make the schools follow the law.

When a couple gets divorced and they have school age children, they should consider the choice of school system at the time of divorce. If you are getting divorced and have school age children, you should consult an experienced divorce attorney who understands the options of school choice.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jury mistrials caused by the Internet

Many people think that jury trials are proceedings in which a jury looks to discover the truth. In practice, jury trials are a search for justice and fairness. Justice does not necessarily mean a search for truth. Justice, in a court setting is search for a conclusion based on a limited amount of information. The process of a trial is designed to control the flow of information to eliminate information that is unreliable, speculative, and unduly prejudicial. Findings by a jury result in justice and not necessarily the truth because the flow of information is limited. The final result is suppose to be fair with due regard to constitutional rights, statutory limitations, and the system of justiceJudges instruct jurors to avoid outside sources of information. They are prohibited from talking to other people about the case and are prohibited from researching the case. Independent research by jurors can result in a mistrial.
Some jurors ignore instructions and research facts or law on the internet. Internet usage by jurors sitting on a trial is so common that is has a name: “mistrial by Google.” Research on the internet has become second nature to many people. It is also considered a private matter. Since nobody will search a juror's smart phone or tablet, jurors feel that they are free to research the case. They can look up the lawyers, the parties, news articles, legal concepts, geographic facts, and other matters. Using Wikipedia, jurors can learn legal definitions and history. With Google Maps, they can look at the scene of a crime.

A rule that prohibits jurors from using the internet is doomed to fail. No matter what instructions a judge gives, some jurors will use their computers to research on the internet. Perhaps the courts should encourage some internet use and allow the judge and lawyers to review the material found and work with the information. The judge can instruct that the Wikipedia definition of a legal concept is not the definition in the jurisdiction. This would allow the judge to explain the difference instead of jurors relying on bad law. It is better for lawyers to address incorrect statements in news articles instead of jurors relying on facts created by a reporter.

The Internet has changed many institutions in society. It is time for jury trials to recognize the influence of the Internet and adapt to this technology.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Massachusetts and the right of privacy in our homes.

File photo of small drone (Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images)According to a recent stories on the internet, a drone was used to spy on a woman in her home. Two men were seen flying a drone with a video screen showing a display from a camera on the drone. In other words, using the drone as a high-tech Peeping Tom. If this happened in Massachusetts, the men flying the drone could be sued for invasion of privacy.

Massachusetts has a statute, G.L. c.214, § 1B which provides that individuals in Massachusetts have a right of privacy. This right of privacy is greatest in a persons home. In the recent case of Polay v. McMahon, the court held that in the home, “all details are intimate details.” Even if a person's conduct in their home is observable by the public, the right of privacy may still protect against the use of electronic surveillance. Most people should consider using a drone to spy into a person's home to be a violation of the right of privacy.

Drones pose a real and substantial threat to the right of privacy. Private individuals can purchase drones with cameras and use them to look into high rise apartment buildings, spy through skylights, and hover outside windows to look inside. If private individuals can do this, image what law enforcement can do. Based on this recent case, it appears that Massachusetts residents have protection against Peeping Drones.

A person who is victimized by electronic spying should consult an attorney concerning their rights based on their situation. The right of privacy can be difficult to understand and apply.   

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Criminal Law and Double Jeopardy by Michael S. Berg, guest blogger

One commonly misunderstood concept in criminal law is that of double jeopardy. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that no person shall "be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb." However, this is narrowly read and there are some exceptions, and it applies only to cases where a final decision has been entered.

First, it only applies to the same sovereign, meaning the same government. So the same state cannot put you on trial for the same conduct more than once. However, you can be put on trial by two different states or by a state and the federal government. So, say you're accused of running a scam from your house in Florida over the internet. The government claims that you convinced a woman in Georgia to send you money. Even if you're acquitted in Florida, Georgia can still try you without violating double jeopardy, because it's a separate state. The federal government can also try you for any federal crimes you may have committed at this point. 
Double jeopardy also does not apply when you win an appeal. Appealing is when you ask a higher court to review the procedure or decisions of the court that had your trial. If the appeals court agrees with you, they will send your case back to the trial court with instructions on what they need to change. In this case, the court is allowed to have another trial.
The court is also permitted to retry you if there was a hung jury or if the judge had to declare a mistrial. A hung jury means the jury couldn't come to an agreement. Because there must be a legal decision, the case will be retried with a new jury. A mistrial means something went so wrong that it compromised the entire trial. For example, in some high profile cases the jury is sequestered and not allowed to speak with anyone about the case or access any news or media. If a juror violates this rule, the judge may declare a mistrial. Since the trial wasn't completed, there will generally be a new trial.

This article on Double Jeopardy is a guest post from Michael S. Berg , a San Diego based Certified Specialist in Criminal Law who focuses on criminal cases.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

My spouse is cohabitating.  Can I stop alimony payments?

In 2012, a new alimony law went into effect in Massachusetts. This alimony law contains a provision that reads:

General term alimony shall be suspended, reduced or terminated upon the cohabitation of the recipient spouse when the payor shows that the recipient spouse has maintained a common household, as defined in this subsection, with another person for a continuous period of at least 3 months

This language seems to say that if the ex-spouse cohabits for three months or longer that alimony is automatically terminated, reduced, or suspended. However, that is an incorrect interpretation of this law.

The payment or non-payment of alimony is controlled by court orders. Unless and until a Judge orders termination or suspension of alimony existing orders must be obeyed. This means that alimony must continue to be paid until a judge issues an order that changes the existing orders. Some separation agreements and divorce decrees have language that automatically terminates alimony upon cohabitation. Other agreements can't be modified by a Judge and alimony must continue to be paid despite the cohabitation. The rest of the orders of alimony must be presented to a judge in the form of a modification action in which the relief sought is termination of alimony. This allows the judge to hear facts to determine if cohabitation has occurred. In some cases, a judge may reduce alimony instead of terminating the payments.

This is a complicated area of law. Wrongful termination of alimony can result in a judgment of contempt against the payor. Before taking a unilateral action that violates a court order a family law attorney should be consulted. Such an attorney can review the existing orders and evidence of cohabitation and advise on the parties rights and obligations concerning future alimony.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Don't fall for this child support trap!

It is not unusual for custody arrangements to need adjustments to change as the children get older. Visitation schedules often change. Children's friends and activities need to be taken into account. Sometimes children move from one parent's home to the other and primary custody changes. The courts encourage cooperation between parents and generally support all custody and visitation changes that occur through agreements. Even if these changes occur without approval from a Probate Court Judge they seldom are the cause for a contempt action in court. It is almost unheard of a court actually finding a parent in contempt for not returning a child to a parent where there is an agreement for a change of schedule.

Changes in child custody can effect the amount of child support paid. The current Massachusetts ChildSupport Guidelines use as a factor the amount of time spent with each parent. As a result, when child custody changes, the amount of child support changes as well. Parents who can cooperate to change custody and visitation for the benefit of the child may also cooperate to adjust child support. Just as parents change custody without judicial approval, they may also change child support by agreement and without judicial approval. This results in a trap for the parent who reduces or stops paying child support.

In the case of Taylor v. Taylor, Mass.App.Ct. 13-P-997 (5/13/2014) the daughter moved from father's home to mothers. The parties agreed that the mother would stop paying child support due to this change in custody. The father even signed a written waiver of child support. Three years later the father filed a contempt for unpaid child support. The court found that despite the written waiver by the father, the mother still violated a court order and was in contempt of that court order. As a result, she had to pay the three years of child support with interest and penalties even though the daughter lived with her and she supported the daughter. The trap is that despite an agreement of the parties, the mother paid to support he daughter and then paid years of child support to the father.

While Massachusetts encourages agreements between the parties, it is necessary to seek approval of such agreements by a Judge. There is a simplified procedure for approval of such matters. Frequently, the court approves these agreements without the necessity of a court appearance.

If parties are contemplating an agreement to modify a child support order, they should consult an experienced family law attorney to avoid falling into the child support trap.