Claiming the state did not provide enough evidence that a Facebook page was public, the Connecticut Appellate Court has reversed one of the charges against a New Canaan journalist who was found guilty of harassing her then-boyfriend's daughter by posting parts of the teen's private journals, which detailed underage drinking and sexual activity at a party, on the social media site in June 2010.
Teri Buhl was convicted April 4, 2013, on the misdemeanor charges of second-degree harassment and second-degree breach of peace and received a sentence of 30 days in jail, one year of probation and a strict order not to interact with the victim or the victim's family.
The prosecution claimed Buhl created a Facebook profile under the alias "Tasha Moore" on the day of New Canaan High School's graduation and posted photographs of journal writings of the then-17-year-old high school senior. The diary was in the back of the teen's bedside drawer, according to Buhl's arrest warrant affidavit.
Buhl appealed the decision and the court announced Monday that it was reversing the breach of peace charge.
According to the court's opinion, "The state failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt" that Moore's Facebook page was public and, therefore, "we further conclude that the evidence was insufficient to support the defendant's conviction of breach of the peace in the second degree."
The court heard arguments from Buhl's attorney, Stephan Seeger, and the state on April 15. At that time, Seeger said Moore's online post had privacy restrictions, which he said would rule out the harassment charge since the teenage victim viewed the post through someone who was friends with Moore on Facebook.
Judge Stuart Bear wrote that the state did not provide enough evidence that the posts were public.
"In the present case, therefore, we are persuaded that the state needed additional testimony from a person qualified to provide evidence to establish that the Facebook page created in the name of Tasha Moore was a public page on June 23, 2010, or on other dates when it was accessed by (the victim) or her friends," Bear wrote.
The teen was the state's only witness who testified regarding the public or private nature of Moore's Facebook profile, according to court's opinion. Bear wrote that she was not qualified to provide any testimony beyond how she accessed the Facebook page.
According to the court's opinion, the teen testified that she was able to view Moore's Facebook page through her own page because Moore's page was "unprivate" and "seemed to be public." The state argued that this testimony was sufficient to establish that Moore's Facebook page was public.
"It also argued before the trial court that even if Moore's Facebook profile was private, at least eight other people saw or knew of Moore's Facebook page and that, therefore, the postings and the subject matter were public ... We disagree," Bear wrote. "The state did not establish that (the victim) had sufficient knowledge of Facebook privacy settings and policies to enable her to provide testimony about them."
Seeger said Monday that he intends to ask the state Supreme Court to review the harassment charge. As for the reversed breach of peace charge, he said the court's decision shows that police "jumped to conclusions."
"Teri has always denied posting these materials on Facebook under the Tasha Moore moniker, and the Court of Appeals has confirmed that there is no basis for a breach of peace conviction rooted in Facebook postings," Seeger said in an email. "For Teri Buhl, the Facebook saga is over, it should never have reached this point on such inadequate evidence."
Jonathan Sousa, special deputy assistant state's attorney, said at the April hearing that the content posted on Facebook could, in fact, be deemed public information, since several of the teen's closest friends saw the post. Even without testimony from Facebook, he said, the court already has proved that Buhl was the perpetrator of the crime.
Sousa could not be immediately reached for comment Monday evening.
Buhl's defense argued that "there was insufficient proof that the posted material was public, and that the state needed to present an expert witness on the issue of Facebook privacy settings and policies."
One day after graduation, the girl's father received an anonymous Priority Mail package with photocopies of his daughter's diary entries and a letter describing the girl's actions while at the party, according to court documents.
Buhl denied having a Facebook account with the name Tasha Moore or posting the girl's writing on the website, the affidavit said. She admitted to sending the package but not to writing the letter or obtaining the photographs, court documents show.
In addressing the harassment charge, which will stand, Bear said that Buhl's "hiding of her identity as the sender of the materials for a number of days is circumstantial evidence of her intent to harass, annoy and alarm" her then-boyfriend and his daughter. Bear wrote that they based their decision on "the surrounding circumstances and the reaction of the victims in this case."
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