Ca. Appeals Ct. Affirms Conviction For Fake MySpace Emails Intended to Influence Custody Dispute — People v. Heeter

[Post by Venkat]

People v. Heeter, B213696 (Cal. Ct. App.) (Aug. 2, 2010)

Background: In a criminal prosecution stemming from false evidence used in a family law dispute, a defendant was convicted of sending fake emails to herself with the intent that the emails would be used to influence a court proceeding. The appeals court affirmed her conviction.

Heeter (the defendant) was married Chris since 2005 (and is his current wife). Chris and his ex-wife (Aubry) were involved in a custody dispute, and Heeter sent herself abusive emails which appeared to come from Aubry. The emails had the tone of Aubry expressing her angst and anger at Heeter for displacing Aubry as the mother of Aubry’s child (e.g.):

My son is not yours and will never be yours[!]. Look you ******* *****, I’m sick and tired of you claiming my son is your own. Get over it. He’s mine and always will be.

The emails were presented in the context of the custody dispute where Aubry was seeking a modification of the custody arrangement so she could spend more time with her child. Chris opposed the request, and presented the emails to show Aubry’s unfitness as a parent. The judge hearing the custody dispute doubted the authenticity of the emails and declined to modify the custody arrangement (Aubry sought additional time and this was not granted). When Aubry expressed her concerns about identity theft to a detective, the detective subpoenaed and obtained MySpace account records for Heeter, Aubry, and Chris. The logs and IP addresses revealed that the emails “had originated from a MySpace account using an IP address identical to that of the MySpace account created in Aubry’s name to which they were sent.”

Discussion: Heeter was charged under a California statute that made it a crime to (1) prepare a false document or thing; (2) with the intent to produce it or allow it to be produced at a trial or other proceeding; (3) for any fraudulent or deceitful purpose.

Heeter did not dispute that she created the fake account or that she had sent the emails, but contested that she intended that the fake emails would be used in a judicial proceeding. The IP address tied to the MySpace account and the timing of the emails made the fact that Heeter sent the emails hard to contest.

The court held that there was ample evidence from which the jury could reasonably conclude that Heeter sent the emails with the intent that they would be used in the custody dispute: (1) she was aware the dispute was ongoing, (2) the emails related to the dispute, and (3) her explanation of why she sent the emails (to “vent”) did not jibe with the content of the emails (“[i]t is simply not reasonable to conclude one would adopt the posture assumed in the writings if their purpose was, as Heeter claims, simply to allow their author to vent her frustrations”).

Heeter also challenged the jury instructions and challenged the statute as ambiguous, but the court rejects these challenges.

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The case illustrates the ease with which email evidence (and MySpace accounts) can be faked. Email evidence is frequently used in family law disputes, which is not surprising, since people probably tend to engage in heated email exchanges (given the subject matter of the proceedings). A family law practitioner confirmed my instincts that courts don’t necessarily subject email evidence to exacting standards and that email evidence often ends up being influential. (Ex parte orders which remain in effect until challenged are often issued on the basis of email evidence.) Courts don’t necessarily operate with the assumption that email and profile evidence can be easily faked, although the judge hearing the custody dispute saw through the fake emails. I blogged about a recent criminal case where a Maryland appeals court allowed for “circumstantial authentication” of a MySpace profile page. This case illustrates the problems with allowing circumstantial authentication.

It’s also interesting to note that in the underlying custody dispute, the judge did not modify the custody arrangement. Aubry had sought more time with her child, but the court denied this request, thus leaving the child partially in the custody of parents who engaged in the conduct that ultimately resulted in this criminal proceeding.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that the judge rejected the prosecution’s request for jail time and instead sentenced Heeter to three years of probation, with the condition that she pay a $100 fine and she not possess or use any credit cards. [It didn't seem from the decision that the prosecution sought any restrictions on internet access.]

Related: This is not the only recent criminal conviction for someone sending fake communications. Wired recently posted about a case where a woman was convicted for sending threatening text messages to herself following a breakup: “Woman Jailed For Texting Threats to Herself.”