February 14, 2008 9:27 PM PST

Judge says use of MySpace may violate a court order

Judge says use of MySpace may violate a court order
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In one of the first rulings of its kind, a Staten Island judge has said that a teenage girl could be charged with violating a restraining order by using MySpace.com to reach out to people she was told not to contact.

The girl, Melisa Fernino, 16, of West Brighton, Staten Island, was charged with three counts of criminal contempt in September after she was accused of sending a MySpace "friend request" to Sandra Delgrosso and her two daughters on August 23. The order was put in place after Fernino made several violent threats against Delgrosso, who had dated her father, and against her two daughters, said a Staten Island official who insisted on anonymity because the case originated in Family Court, where proceedings are private.

On Wednesday, Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. of Staten Island Criminal Court turned down Fernino's request to dismiss the contempt charges, ruling that MySpace was a form of contact just like speaking in person or by telephone and that the order of restraint had barred any sort of contact with the Delgrossos. The judge's decision was reported on Thursday in The Staten Island Advance.

"The defendant should not be exculpated because she, instead of contacting her victims directly, used MySpace," Judge Sciarrino wrote.

According to the Staten Island district attorney's office and other prosecutors who specialize in cyber crimes, it was one of the first cases in which a judge in the United States had ruled that a restraining order had been violated by contact made through MySpace, a social networking Web site. According to the News Corp., which bought the site in 2005, MySpace has more than 70 million members, who can initiate contact with one another by sending "friend requests." The Delgrossos had MySpace accounts.

Joseph DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School and the former chief of the computer crimes unit at the United States attorney's office in Manhattan, said that as technology advances, judges will have to determine whether various forms of online contact violate restraining orders.

DeMarco said that a spectrum could emerge with, say, direct e-mail messages from one person to another being prohibited, but a post to a bulletin board or blog that both people frequent causing less concern.

He added that a MySpace "friend request" seemed to him more like direct contact by e-mail.

"This does not seem to me to be pushing the court's jurisdiction or twisting settled points of law out of shape," he said.

Fernino faces up to a year in prison if convicted on the contempt charges. Her lawyer did not return calls on Thursday seeking comment.

Judge Sciarrino's order, which managed to quote both Wikipedia and "Hamlet," meanwhile served as something of a primer for the technologically challenged.

"Those friends thou hast and their adoption tried, Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel," the judge wrote, adding: "But not when an order of protection prohibits someone from communicating with another."

"While it is true," he also wrote, "that the person who receives the 'friend request' could simply deny the request to become 'friends,' that request was still a contact and 'no contact' was allowed by the order of the protection."

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