Courts

Appeals Court: Even for Judges, Facebook Friends Aren't the Same as Real Friends

William Youkers was on parole in 2011 when he choked his pregnant girlfriend in Plano. He pleaded guilty, and the judge was lenient, placing him in a community supervision program. But three months later, he tested positive for meth. He assured Judge Scott Becker that he was turning his life around by taking community college classes and moving in with his mother. Becker wasn't convinced, though, and sentenced him to eight years in prison.

When his request for a new trial was denied, Youkers took his plea to the appeals court. There, he stepped onto ground that hasn't yet been tread in Texas courts: the judge's Facebook status.

Youkers discovered at some point after his trial that Becker was Facebook friends with the father of his pregnant girlfriend and had been throughout the trial. What's more, the father had sent Becker a Facebook message intended to sway the judge's decision in the case. At the very least, Youkers argues, this raises big questions about the judge's impartiality.

See also Texas Lawyers May Soon Be Able to Serve Defendent Via Facebook

In a hearing before the appeals court, Becker acknowledged the Facebook friendship. He also acknowledged that the father had sent a Facebook message with the intent of influencing his decision. But Becker argued that he didn't really know the guy. The two of them had run for local office at the same time, though in different races, and had wound up as Facebook friends. As for the Facebook message, Becker testified that he stopped reading as soon as he realized what it was and immediately sent a message rebuking the man. On top of that, the pregnant woman's father was urging the judge to be lenient on Becker, meaning that, had his plea been successful, Youkers would have gotten off with lighter punishment.

The appeals court handed down its decision last week, confirming what everyone in the social media age long ago figured out: Facebook friendship ≠ real friendship.

The court explains:

Merely designating someone as a 'friend' on Facebook 'does not show the degree or intensity of a judge's relationship with a person.' One cannot say, based on this designation alone, whether the judge and the 'friend' have met; are acquaintances that have met only once; are former business acquaintances; or have some deeper, more meaningful relationship. Thus, the designation, standing alone, provides no insight into the nature of the relationship.

And so the matter turns to whether the improper Facebook message influenced Becker's decision. The court sees no evidence that it did. Becker responded in the way judges are supposed to respond, whether they're approached online, at a party, or in their chambers.

In other words, Facebook is now indistinguishable from real life.

(h/t 600 Commerce)

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson