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E-mail and Facebook used as weapons in family law cases

Illinois families going through divorce or working on a custody arrangement will want to take note of two recent developments regarding electronic communication. First, a man is facing criminal charges in Michigan for hacking into his wife's e-mail account. Second, Facebook has become a popular source of ammunition in divorce and custody disputes.

The Michigan husband, a 33-year-old computer technician, suspected his wife was having an affair. He figured out her password and started reading her e-mails. (He contends the password was on a piece of paper next to the computer.) He found what he was looking for: His wife was having an affair with her second husband -- the same man who'd been arrested for assaulting her in front of the son she had with her first husband. Finding the evidence wasn't enough, though. The husband took the incriminating e-mails to the first husband, who promptly asked the court for custody of his son.

The defendant claims he was trying to protect the child. The police thought differently. They have charged him with computer misuse, a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to five years.

The man is not alone in looking at a spouse's or significant other's e-mails without permission. According to one study, 38 percent of respondents under age 25 admitted to "snooping." Only 10 percent of those found that their partner was unfaithful. The study did not ask how many had used the e-mails as evidence in a court action.

The Michigan man's example is out there, though. And a recent report from the American Academy of Matrimonial lawyers said that two out of three lawyers use information from Facebook as evidence in a divorce or custody dispute.

One attorney elaborated. He gains access to Facebook pages by friending friends of the "target." If an account is not secured, he can go to the page "over and over and over again" looking for pictures of the husband drinking at a bar or the wife having a wild time at a party. And when the friending strategy doesn't work, he can hire a computer forensics expert to find cached pages on the target's personal computer.

One of those forensics experts says that it sometimes only takes one piece of evidence "to convince a judge that what they're hearing from the other party is not the truth."

It's a scary thought.

Sources:

AOL News, "Snooping on Wife's E-Mail Could Put Man in Prison," 12/27/10

MyFoxChicago.com, "Facebook Posts Can End Up in Divorce Court," 01/03/11

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