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Online Trouble: What You Say and Do Can be Used Against You in a Court of Law

Posted by Doug Murphy | Jan 17, 2023 | 0 Comments

The internet can seem like the Wild West sometimes. People often do and say whatever they want and seem nearly anonymous. But your actions online can come back to haunt you, particularly if some of your online activity is legal. Some of the most common legal troubles people run into online include:

  • Making online threats
  • Illegal searches
  • Revenge porn
  • Hate speech
  • Illegal activity

But if you do run afoul of the law for your online endeavors, it's important to remember that you are innocent until proven guilty, just like you are for any charged criminal offense. With the help of an expert in Texas criminal defense law, you'll have the best possible chance of a positive outcome.

Making Online Threats and Stalking

Texas's Electronic Communications Act of 2001 makes it illegal to stalk, harass, abuse, or threaten others online. Crimes could include actions like:

  • Harassing someone via Facebook,
  • Making false claims or allegations against someone on Twitter,
  • Encouraging others to harass someone online,
  • Online sexual abuse, or
  • Threatening to harm someone.

Cyberstalking can range from a Class B Misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. Convictions can result in up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Illegal Searches

While internet searches seem to be anonymous, they aren't. When you search images or videos, even if you don't affirmatively download anything, your computer stores a cache of your search results. As a result, some searches, like child pornography, are illegal. Other searches that might be illegal include:

  • Content advocating terrorism or terrorist acts,
  • Video or images of cruelty, criminal activity, or violence, and
  • Content inciting or instructing violence.

Some searches may violate state law, federal law, or both. Texas law specifically prohibits some online activity, including:

  • Online solicitation of a minor,
  • Interfering with someone's online access,
  • Tampering with electronic data, and
  • Unlawfully decrypting online information.

Penalties for convictions range from fines of $2,000 to $10,000 and 180 days in jail to five years or even life in prison for serious cybercrimes.

Revenge Porn

Revenge porn involves posting sexually explicit photos of someone else on the internet. We call this “revenge porn” because it often happens when part of a former couple posts nude photos or videos online after a breakup. While someone may have taken the videos or photos with consent, posting them online is still illegal without the other person's permission. Legally, this is called sexual cyber harassment, and it's illegal under the Texas Electronic Communications Act of 2001. Tex. Penal Code § 21.16 (2019). This crime can be a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony. A conviction can result in up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Hate Speech

The First Amendment protects much of what we say online. That includes hate speech, which is abusive speech or writing expressing prejudice against a group based on religion, gender, race, or sexual orientation. While hate speech isn't necessarily illegal, speech that progresses to threats is illegal.

The Texas Hate Crime Act defines a hate crime as a crime motivated by “prejudice, hatred, or advocacy of violence.” Tex. Penal Code § 12.47 (2001). This can include online threats if they meet the motivation qualifications. If a crime qualifies as a “hate crime,” it increases it to the next highest offense level.

Illegal Activity

We've all seen people unwisely posting photos or videos of themselves engaged in vandalism, drug use, and more on social media. While posting information, photos, or video of yourself engaging in illegal activity may not technically be a crime, you're basically handing the evidence of the crime to anybody who views your photos. The police can and will use information you've posted online as evidence against you.

Defenses to Online Criminal Charges

Like many other crimes, a good criminal attorney can develop a well-rounded defense based on the facts and circumstances of your case. Your attorney will question the evidence, including the credibility and accuracy of witnesses. When much of the evidence is online, some specific defenses may apply, including:

  • Coercion and entrapment: Coercion may be a defense if someone forces you to commit a crime because of a threat of harm to themselves or someone else. In some cases, law enforcement agencies may run sting operations online. If the police induced or coerced you into committing a crime online, your attorney may raise the entrapment defense.
  • Necessity: If you believe that your actions were necessary to protect yourself from harm, necessity may be a defense. For example, if someone threatened you with physical harm in person, you later texted them stating you would defend yourself aggressively, and the police arrest you for making threats online, necessity may be a viable defense.
  • Identity theft: If someone steals your identity or takes over an online account without your knowledge and commits crimes online, your attorney will raise this as a defense.

Hire an Expert in Criminal Defense Law

If you're facing criminal charges for your online activity, it's important to remember that you are innocent until proven guilty, and a skilled criminal defense lawyer can help. Attorney Doug Murphy is an expert in criminal defense law. In fact, Doug is one of only two Texas attorneys with board certifications in both Criminal Defense and DWI Defense, making him an expert in these niche areas of the law.

In addition to his expertise in criminal defense law, Doug is well-regarded by his peers in the Houston legal community. Best Lawyers in America recently named Doug a 2023 “Lawyer of the Year” for Houston DWI defense. This prestigious award from U.S. News & World Report came from the nominations and votes of his fellow lawyers in the Houston area. Doug and the skilled legal team at the Doug Murphy Law Firm have defended people from criminal charges related to their online activity for years. Find out how they can help you too. Call them at 713-229-8333 or contact them online to schedule your consultation.

About the Author

Doug Murphy

Doug Murphy is one of only two Texas lawyers Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and also in DWI Defense by the National College for DUI Defense, accredited by the American Bar Association and the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

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