A Frankston man has narrowly avoided jail after an online party prank back-fired, the episode serving as another cautionary tale about the risks of misusing social media.
What the man thought to be a harmless Facebook hoax led to police intervention and the prospect of jail time and a criminal record when he was charged with stalking two years later.
“Don’t mess around with that sort of stuff,” Michael Davis warned this week, having completed a four-month good behaviour bond as part of his punishment. “It’s just not worth it. It drags out and takes a massive toll on you.”
The drama began after Mr Davis, then a teenager, used Facebook in August 2010 to advertise falsely that a party was being held at the home of a rival teen, who had been feuding with Mr Davis's friend over a girl.
He created the Facebook event with an account he set up in the name of Tom Fletcher – the front man of the English pop band McFly, who was supposedly hosting the public event.
Within days, thousands of people had accepted the Facebook invitation, prompting the family of the targeted teen to contact police. In turn, the police warned via local media that those who turned up for the hoax party would be charged with trespassing.
Some teenagers did show up, Mr Davis learned later, and one of his friends did cop a $200 fine for going to the address.
And for a while that appeared to be the end of the story.
But two years later, Mr Davis was charged with stalking under Section 21A of the Crimes Act 1958, with police alleging that the hoax had drawn unwanted attention to the targeted teenager and his family, who had feared for their safety.
Police had tracked the IP address used to set up the prank to Mr Davis's home computer. This was despite him not having returned to the Facebook page since creating the hoax.
His solicitor, Will Parker, of James Dowsley & Associates, said he could understand had the matter been dealt with promptly but remains puzzled as to why it took police two years to lay charges.
The delay meant that although the alleged offence was committed when Mr Davis was a minor, the matter was eventually sent to the Magistrate’s Court because he had since turned 19, putting him at risk of a harsher penalty.
Ultimately, he was accepted into the Criminal Justice Diversion Program, an option for first-time offenders, thereby avoiding jail. He agreed to write a letter of apology to the teen and to police, donate $400 to Beyond Blue and serve the four-month bond.
“I thought it would just be a house party, cops would rock up and that would be the end of it,” Mr Davis, now 20, reflected.
Mr Parker said a key issue in the case, and one he had been prepared to fight had his client not been approved for the diversion program, was whether creating a false party qualified as stalking under the Act.
To qualify, there must be multiple acts of stalking which together place the targeted person in fear. Mr Parker said it was questionable whether a reasonable person would have become fearful in this situation.
Even though Mr Davis simply created the prank Facebook event, the court viewed the involvement of numerous others as multiple acts on his behalf, via their contact with the Facebook page and their attendance at the address.
Detective Senior Constable Mark Wiederhold, who was the informant in the case, declined to discuss specific details, but said the police were well aware of potential problems arising from the increasing use of social media.
“I believe people should be very careful about comments they place on social media websites such as Facebook,” he said. “With the increased use of Facebook, we are seeing many young people in particular not being very careful about what they post at times.”
Postings on social media increasingly are being approved as admissible in court procedures, similar to evidence gathered from mobile phones.
Mr Parker’s colleague, Tom Oldfield, said it was justifiable for police to tap social media for evidence because “it is a modern way people are communicating, which – like any previous form of communication – needs to be subject to law”.
Both solicitors agreed that the perceived anonymity of online communication posed a potential trap, with social media users often believing that posts and entries deleted with the click of a button were wiped forever. But there would always be a way for police to retrieve such data.
Mr Parker added: “It is the immediacy of social media that poses this danger in my opinion, because it is just a click of a button . . . There isn’t that time necessary to think ‘Should I?’.”