Facebook Photographs Depicting Alcohol Consumption Properly Considered in Probation Revocation Hearing
In a criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut upheld a defendant’s probation revocation, finding that photographic evidence had a “minimal indicium of reliability” allowing their consideration by the trial court.
In this case, the defendant was convicted of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence by a person under age twenty-one, in violation of General Statutes § 14-227g, following an accident resulting in the drowning death of a passenger. She was sentenced to five years incarceration, execution suspended after one year, and five years probation. Eleven special conditions of probation were imposed, including operation of a car only with a valid license and the installation of an ignition interlock device on any car she owned or operated.
While on probation, the defendant was involved in a minor non-alcohol-related accident, and police determined she violated the above two conditions. A probation hearing was held, where the State sought revocation and imposition of the remaining four years incarceration. It argued the defendant was a “marginal probationer… worshipping at the altar of alcohol and debauchery and lewd behavior.”
The Probation Hearing
To support its position, the State referenced photographs (photos) posted on Facebook which, it asserted, depicted the defendant while on probation. Some of the photos “demonstrate or suggest alcohol consumption by the defendant” in various social settings. Defense counsel argued for a more lenient sentence because the violations were not severe and alcohol was not involved in the accident. He asserted that the images did not represent the defendant and were undated.
The court stated that alcohol consumption was an aggravating factor in the original sentence and it was appalled that the defendant “still has the audacity to go back on Facebook and show herself in the condition of being intoxicated.” When given the opportunity to respond to the prosecutor’s and court’s statements, the defendant simply apologized for what she did and asserted she did not drive after drinking. When the State sought to introduce the photos, defense counsel objected, arguing a potential due process violation. However, the court overruled, stating that “it could consider any evidence in a sentencing hearing as long as the evidence was found to be reliable.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, the court imposed a three-year sentence because the court believed that “the beneficial purposes of probation are no longer being served.” The defendant appealed, claiming that the Facebook photos were not reliable. However, the Appellate Court affirmed, noting that the claim was unpreserved and did not warrant special review because it did not involve a constitutional violation. The defendant then sought remedy with the Supreme Court.
Determining Minimal Indicium of Reliability
When trial courts consider whether to impose an original sentence and order incarceration, it must exercise an informed use of discretion. The sentencing judge has authority to consider “a wide variety of information… only if it has some minimal indicium of reliability.” Particularly telling, “the absence of a denial itself provides an important [indicium] of reliability.” Therefore, a judge’s determination will be upheld “[a]s long as [he] has a reasonable, persuasive basis for relying on the information which he uses to fashion his ultimate sentence.”
In this case, the Supreme Court noted that the only suggestion the defendant denied as that she drove after drinking. She did not contest the prosecutor’s and court’s statements, and did not deny that the behavior depicted in the photos occurred while she was on probation. Rather, the court noted, “the defendant merely challenged the probative force of the evidence itself, not the underlying truth to which the evidence purportedly speaks.” Therefore, the Court concluded that the photos had the minimal indicia of reliability which would survive constitutional analysis in a probation revocation hearing setting. It affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Court.
When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or license suspension, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.