Wilson’s postings generate praise, liability concerns
Along the way, the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page has garnered more than 1,100 digital friends and generated concerns from some attorneys, including one who has requested a change of venue for his client.
Wilson’s postings sometimes prompt long strings of comments in response, and one called for a boycott of certain local businesses.
The county attorney said research is needed into possible liability resulting from Facebook postings by county officials.
“We know that social media is out there and it’s just huge,” said Wilson. “It’s a good way for us at the Sheriff’s Office to get input, feedback and stay connected.”
He pointed toward people sharing information to bolster attendance at two town hall meetings last year, which was sparked by a wave of burglaries during last fall, as evidence of the trend. More than 100 people attended each of the events.
At the meetings, audience members called for the Sheriff’s Office to post more information online about crimes in their community and also pictures of suspected vehicles or people involved in illegal activities.
A look at his Facebook page shows a majority of people lauding his efforts to keep the community informed about public safety risks including extreme weather updates, crime trends and providing mug shots of criminals and those charged with crimes. It’s that last category that could land the county in a lawsuit and affect a current criminal case.
‘Not a concern of mine’
Wilson posted a mug shot of Samantha Rovier, 31, of Crescent City, on the sheriff’s Facebook page Jan. 9 after she had bailed out of the Del Norte County Jail. She had been arrested on suspicion of criminal conspiracy and burglary.
The mug shot was accompanied by a caption that read, “Be Aware that Samanthia Rovier bailed out of jail and is back out in the community. She is one of those who committed many of the burglaries in our community. I have attached a photo of her to this site just for your information.”
The following day, the post had dozens of comments, 89 people shared it and 27 people clicked to say they “liked” it.
The post was eventually taken off the site by Wilson at the request of District Attorney Jon Alexander out of concern that it could affect the criminal charges pending against Rovier.
When asked about the post affecting the case, Wilson said, “That’s not a concern of mine. That may be a concern of the District Attorney’s Office.”
Alexander responded in an interview with the Triplicate.
“I did request for him to take it down,” Alexander said. “I believe the sheriff was motivated by his obvious concern for the safety of the people in this county, which I find admirable. On the other hand, I would not want that posting to, in any way, fuel a motion to change venue, which would cost this county a substantial amount of money.
“Additionally, Ms. Rovier enjoys the constitutional presumption of innocence accorded to all Americans charged with the commission of a crime, which my office ultimately respects.”
In fact a change of venue has been requested in part because of the Facebook posting, said Bob Drossel, Rovier’s attorney. The motion is expected to be heard today.
County Counsel Gretchen Stuhr declined to comment specifically about the Facebook posting regarding Rovier.
“She has threatened a lawsuit and I don’t want to comment about that at this point,” said Stuhr.
Liability ‘potential is there’
It’s unclear, Stuhr said, whether there are liability issues for Wilson or any other county official who posts on a public or private Facebook page.
“In a general sense, the potential is there,” said Stuhr, speaking of liability.
Wilson said he didn’t see a problem with stating Rovier was one of the people who committed burglaries while her case is still pending.
“One of the wonderful things about law enforcement is that we always know there are people that commit crimes all over the place and many of them will never be punished,” said Wilson, citing a lack of resources to apprehend, investigate and prosecute potential criminals.
“It doesn’t make the person any less guilty, whether they have been prosecuted or not, if they have committed such an offense,” said Wilson.
Wilson also recently posted mug shots of three convicted sex offenders, including information about charges and any reported actions pertaining to their status. For instance, Wilson wrote, “Often seen panhandling in the Crescent City area, once dressed as Santa Claus giving out Candy Canes,” accompanying a man convicted of possessing child pornography.
That post received 48 comments, 25 people who shared it and two people who “liked” it.
The comments range from condemning the person to reported sightings around town.
A person commented on a posting of another registered sex offender, calling for a boycott of a few local businesses because he was seen in them.
The offender in question was convicted of lewd acts with a minor under age 14 and Wilson wrote, “reported to be taking photos of school children,” on Jan. 12. That posting received 50 comments, 50 people shared it and it has 14 “likes.”
‘Keep it civil and accurate’
Wilson said that he monitors the page for comments that are argumentative or stray away from the main goal, which is information sharing. The post calling for a boycott of local business remains on the page.
“We try to keep it civil and accurate,” said Wilson.
He said he plans to continue postings and mug shots and other information.
“It’s still something that I think is necessary for the community, absolutely,” said Wilson, adding he chooses people to post information about by assessing their risk to the community.
Stuhr said research is needed regarding how comments and postings on public officials’ Facebook pages could have a legal impact on the county.
Del Norte isn’t the only county dealing with the issue; social media is sprouting up in sheriff’s offices all over the country.
A sheriff in Ohio is looking toward Facebook to convince people with overdue fines to pay up or have their picture and warrant posted.
A Florida sheriff has began using YouTube and Facebook to draw attention to cold cases involving murders or missing persons.
And in Arkansas, sheriff’s offices are disseminating information on Twitter and Facebook.
Wilson hopes that the community embraces a tip-line that is attached to his Facebook profile.
The tip-line enables people to anonymously provide pictures, videos and information.
People can also text “dnsotip,” followed by the information, to 847411.
“I’m happy that we have done something the community seems to like,” said Wilson. “I hope they step up and embrace the DNSO tip-line more. It can be and will be very useful.”