Monday, May 10, 2010
C.A.: Threats on Password-Protected Website Were Harassment
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Messages a San Mateo County man posted on his password-protected website about killing a co-worker his former girlfriend had begun dating constituted harassment, even though there was no evidence he intended the co-worker to see them, the First District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Concluding it was “common sense” that the former girlfriend—who still had access to the website and was invited to read the posts—would share them with her new beau, Div. Four in an unpublished opinion said sufficient evidence supported a finding that they presented a “credible threat of violence.”
Chris McGee sought an injunction against Pratik Patel to enjoin harassment under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 527.6 after McGee’s girlfriend, identified as “J.S.,” warned him of the threats and gave him her password so he could see for himself.
According to the court, Patel and McGee worked for the same employer, and J.S. began dating McGee about one year after she and Patel broke up.
Patel maintained an online blog for J.S. while they were dating, and continued to post entries after the breakup. J.S. and Patel remained in communication by e-mail, and some of Patel’s e-mails invited J.S. to log on and read his blog.
She did, finding—according to McGee—posts in April 2009 that were “really violent and angry.” J.S. warned McGee, and then a few weeks later told him there was “a lot more disturbing stuff” posted.
J.S. e-mailed McGee a link to the blog along with her password, and he read the entries, later testifying that “there emerged a lot of language about disfiguring my body, kicking my brains out till blood came out, lots of racial offense [sic], a lot of the sentiment of trying to punish her for having ruined his life, by mutilating me, poisoning me with Cobalt 90, all these schemes.”
McGee said the posts indicated Patel would “wait so long as I have to, to get revenge” and could “wait forever in a life time,” and included passages about killing McGee, Patel’s association with J.S. and killing himself.
McGee also testified that Patel never communicated with him about the posts, and would “usually look down and go in another direction” when they saw one another at work.
Following a hearing, a San Mateo Superior Court judge granted McGee an injunction ordering Patel to stay at least 100 yards away from McGee, his home, his workplace and his vehicle for three years. The judge observed that the posts showed Patel was “clearly very angry, very, very concerned, very disturbed from my vantage point.”
On appeal, Patel argued that the posts did not present a credible threat of violence under Sec. 527.6 because he never knowingly or willingly communicated a threat to McGee.
The statute defines harassment as “unlawful violence, a credible threat of violence, or a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose.” A “credible threat” is “a knowing and willful statement or course of conduct that would place a reasonable person in fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family, and that serves no legitimate purpose.”
The Court of Appeal, however, upheld the injunction in an opinion by Justice Patricia K. Sepulveda.
The justice rejected Patel’s argument that he was “entitled to presume” McGee would not have access to the blog, writing that there was no evidence suggesting J.S. and McGee accessed a “computer, computer system, or computer network” without permission—as prohibited by Penal Code Sec. 502—because J.S. remained authorized to view the website, and McGee acted with her permission.
Sepulveda also rebuffed Patel’s contention that he was “reasonable and justified” in believing McGee would not learn of the blog contents, as well as an argument that J.S. should have warned Patel that she would share the posts with McGee.
“Considering the graphic and violent nature of the posts, we do not find it surprising that J.S. would not inform [Patel] in advance that she planned to share them with [McGee], because to do so might have further agitated [Patel],” she commented.
Justices Timothy A. Reardon and Maria P. Rivera joined Sepulveda in her opinion.
The case is McGee v. Patel, A126262.
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