Texas Legislator Introduces Bill That Would Allow Legal Papers To Be Served To People's Social Media Accounts

from the and-you-thought-you-were-awkward-in-public-already dept

Well, this should be fun. A bill (a very short one) has been introduced into the Texas state legislature that would grant various entities the right to serve people legal papers via their social media accounts. This is more of an add on than an actual bill, giving process servers, etc. the choice (should a judge allow it) to bring you the glad tidings of a legal summons, divorce proceedings, paycheck garnishment and the like through various social media services.

Here’s the pertinent legal wording in all its brief glory.

Sec.A17.031. SUBSTITUTED SERVICE THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA WEBSITE. (a) If substituted service of citation is authorized under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the court may prescribe as a method of service under those rules an electronic communication sent to the defendant through a social media website if the court finds that:

(1) the defendant maintains a social media page on that website;

(2) the profile on the social media page is the profile of the defendant;

(3) the defendant regularly accesses the social media page account; and

(4) the defendant could reasonably be expected to receive actual notice if the electronic communication were sent to the defendant’s account.

Now, I can understand the frustration of those in the paper-serving business. If someone truly doesn’t want bad news delivered to them, they can simply not answer the phone, pick up the mail and otherwise make themselves unavailable. Most people, however, can’t seem to stay away from Facebook and other social media networks for very long, though, making this avenue extra tempting. In fact, a judge in Australia made an exception to allow a lawyer to serve notice of foreclosure via Facebook back in 2008, after the foreclosees failed to show up in court.

The problem with this sort of activity is that it becomes a very public act. There are a variety of ways to contact people discreetly via social media, but those methods can be just as easily ignored as anything IRL.

For instance, my Facebook account receives quite a few messages from people I don’t know or follow. I check this inbox roughly once every NEVER. If someone were to send me a notice I needed to respond to within X amount of time or face the dire consequences (I don’t know — hacked to death by cleaver-wielding members of the Sheriff’s department?), I would blissfully slip right past the deadline and be cleaved to death once the time had expired. In order to actually be noticed, those serving legal notices might need to “befriend” those they’re serving, something that seems unlikely. (You have a friend request from Lower Brule County Sheriff’s Department. Accept?)

The easier option would be to just splatter the news all over your personal page, which is viewable by (at the minimum) your Friends list. If you’re like everybody, you’d probably rather not have everyone you’ve Facebook-friended know that you’re seriously delinquent on your child support payments or that your car has just been repossessed.

Likewise with Twitter. If both parties don’t follow each other, they can’t utilize direct messages, the behind-the-scenes Twitter option. This basically means that those serving papers will be left to publicly @you, something that’s viewable by everyone on Twitter.

Now, those pushing for this can argue that the very process of serving papers is rarely private. After all, your neighbors can see the sheriff’s car in your driveway. If you’ve been particularly troublesome to get ahold of, a person may find someone hurling papers in their general direction at their workplace, in the airport, while walking down the street, at their kid’s ballgame… pretty much anywhere.

Having someone Tweet “YOU’VE BEEN SERVED” with a link to a PDF isn’t that much different than having papers shoved into your hands at a crowded mall. The main difference (which may be key) is that the document will be immediate, public knowledge, unlike a fistful of paper shoved into your reluctant hands.

Now, if this bill does become law (and that’s a very big IF), one would hope that these judges would be extremely reluctant to grant servers the right to hurl papers all over the internet. The potential for abuse is enormous, especially considering the IRL option is much more strenuous than firing off tweets and Facebook posts from the comfort of an air-conditioned office. Sure, I’d love to see more deadbeat dads get served for non-payment of child support and other miscreants receive their legal comeuppance, but I’d much rather see this process handled with a bit more propriety than these public venues would allow.

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Comments on “Texas Legislator Introduces Bill That Would Allow Legal Papers To Be Served To People's Social Media Accounts”

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Ninja (profile) says:

The main difference (which may be key) is that the document will be immediate, public knowledge, unlike a fistful of paper shoved into your reluctant hands.

Oh please, serve Dotcom, Assange, Dajaz1, Rojadirecta and similar cases via social networks. PLEASE. I think I actually support this as means of making the Govt more TRANSPARENT. It would be amusing to see them trying to put gag orders in whatever served this way.

On a side note, I haven’t checked my Facebook in weeks. I’d be in trouble.

out_of_the_blue says:

Facebook will become mandatory.

This is my rebuttal to a dolt from December who wrote just don’t make an account. I’ve had to wait but truth will emerge; one day you’ll all be forced to agree with me.

Facebook is becoming not only de-facto log-in credentialer, but being intruded into YOUR lives every day. It’s woven into the fabric of the web and you’ll be shut out of modern society if don’t use it: quite literally an UNPERSON.

All too soon, you won’t be able to avoid Facebook.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Facebook will become mandatory.

All too soon, you won’t be able to avoid Facebook.

O please, there are people who don’t use cell phones even though they could. And it’s much, much more useful than a dumb Facebook account. FB is just the current trend. Maybe it’ll not vanish in the future but people will find something else to waste their time in the future. And it is not the only social network around.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

The advantage of serving someone in person is that person can see who is serving them. They can see the police car, they can see the badge, at the least they can see the ID of the person serving them. I don’t know if I’d trust a tweet from @SheriffsDepartment saying I’m being summoned. Sounds like it’s just begging for a scam.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

How about @OfficialSheriffsDepartmentHonest, would that be trustworthy enough?

Yeah, if something like this actually gets put into law, it will do nothing more than make the people who it’s supposed to be helping have a harder time, as it will be impossible for people to know what is and is not an actual legal notice, leading them to ignore them all.

Not to mention the vast possibility for harassment something like this would make available to anyone with a computer. Don’t like someone? Just post what looks like a legal notice on their Twitter/Facebook page accusing them of missing a court date or not contacting their probation officer.

But hey, I’m sure that would never happen… /s

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Right now I get a ton of spam purporting to be from UPS or USPS us FedEx, with an attachment that’s almost certainly a virus. (Why these spammers think I will click on the hundredth identical message when I never clicked on the last 99, I will never understand.)

It would be a bad idea to be requiring people to open similar messages if they purport to be from a process server. Think about it – an unsolicited message with an attachment, from someone you never heard of. And now you pretty much HAVE to open it.

On a side note, if they’re going to be attaching a PDF or any other format of scanned document, I want the clerk of courts to certify that it is a proper copy. I’ve seen too many illegible scanned papers.

GMacGuffin says:

On the other hand...

This does have potential for abuse, but it also requires some hoop-jumping before one can serve via social media. And…

There’s a hierarchy of service. 1) personal service — usually you have to try three times before attempting 2) substituted service, in which you serve someone of apparent authority at the defendants’ abode, etc. If that doesn’t work, then we get to things like 3) service by publication. That’s where you post notice in a paper nobody has ever heard of, including the defendant. So the defendant likely doesn’t know he’s been served.

Being served by publication, then defaulted for not knowing about it, is bad. So in that light, if the defendant is truly unaware that the papers are coming (which does happen), service by social media would seem a better option. Plaintiffs generally want the defendants to know they are being sued. Too many ways for a defendant to get out of it otherwise.

One would hope that the Courts would first ensure that the process server has exhausted a few sub-service attempts before jumping straight to the social media world. That’s judicial latitude stuff, though, unless written into the statue.

So I get it — both sides. Again, one of those things that could be a good thing, if it’s done right; a nightmare if not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: On the other hand...

In Wisconsin, when service by publication occurs, you must also send a copy via mail if you think you might know the defendant’s address.

If they keep this safeguard, and they are required to attempt “normal” substitute service first, it’s maybe OK.

On the OTHER hand, the first thing I’d think is “scam” if I received unsolicited legal papers through social media. If I even checked my messages at all.

Joel Coehoorn says:

Abandon/Infrequent Accounts

Just because I have a facebook account, that doesn’t mean I check it regularly.

Does the bill have any requirements to “validate” a social media account that include recent activity? And perhaps rather than the post date, the date served should be the first time you can prove I actually access the service following the posting. Those two conditions would make me feel a lot better about the process.

With regards to the public issue: it would be easy enough to lock the documents behind a login that uses one of the “Login with Twitter” or “Login with Facebook” authentication options, so only the target can actually see the documents.

tyesha says:

We Serving Papers Online but Not Serving Papers For IP Harassment

I’d like to see this one. Our government are the worst violators of the constitution and threatening to America’s society. I’d like to be able to serve them papers at the white house for disloyalty and betrayal within this country for personal gain.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: We Serving Papers Online but Not Serving Papers For IP Harassment

It’s fairly easy to serve government agencies, actually. (The hard part is not getting the case thrown out after you’ve served them.)

Social media service is NOT appropriate for service of corporations or government agencies, because as likely as not, some intern is handling the social media accounts. (Do you think Obama personally reads all of his social media messages?) You can’t just serve some random person who works there; at the very least, you need to serve the person in charge at the time if an officer isn’t there.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Now, I can understand the frustration of those in the paper-serving business. If someone truly doesn’t want bad news delivered to them, they can simply not answer the phone, pick up the mail and otherwise make themselves unavailable. “

That only made me frustrated on a personal level. Service via publication means that any attempts to avoid service are futile.

Except, of course, for those papers which cannot be substitute served. But this bill does not affect those.

Milton Freewater says:


Just … no.

The whole point of the process of “being served” is that the person served can trust the legitimacy of the papers, and that the sender can verify the recipient got them.

It is far too easy for online communications to be spoofed. People would be within their rights to delete such a communications as a spam or virus.

It’s also far too easy for a person to simply say they didn’t see the papers – say they deleted their account without checking their inbox or newsfeed. There’s nobody to testify otherwise, because they were never visited by a process server.

If this – “the defendant could reasonably be expected to receive actual notice” – is good enough for the courts, just pop the things in the mail.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sorry O_O_T_B but I will not accept Facebook as a mandatory. Call me a luddite. I’ve never been there, not going there, and certainly not making an account. I’m concerned with privacy matters. Nope don’t own a cell phone either. My lifestyle does not require mobility of a phone so there is no need to pay for an additional spy device.

Just because Facebook is all over websites does not mean I allow them my information. I didn’t go to their site and I did not agree to their terms of use for the internet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Having an account does not necessarily mean you're reachable

There’s a huge assumption here that just because a person has a social media account the person will see things posted to said account. I know people with Facebook accounts who hardly ever use them, if at all. It would be unfair to expect them to notice legal papers posted to those accounts.

mattshow (profile) says:

Doesn't seem like a big deal

At first glance, this doesn’t really seem all that awful to me. One key part that no one is talking about is the first part: “If substituted service of citation is authorized under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure”

ie. You have to already be at the point where the court is allowing you to use “substituted service”. I’m not familiar with the Texas rules of civil procedure so more research would be necessary before I could say anything definitive but usually that doesn’t happen until you’ve tried very hard to serve someone documents in the traditional methods.

So what this is really saying is that if you’ve tried all the normal methods of service, and you’ve convinced the court that the person cannot be served (perhaps because they’re dodging service), then the court has the discretion to allow you to serve them through social media if certain conditions are met. Courts in many jurisdictions already have wide discretion in what kind of “substituted service” they’ll allow. There’s an eHow articles on how to service divorce papers through a newspaper advertisement.

Brent (profile) says:

if this becomes a law, there will be at least one company that either soley does this or adds this to their list of existing services: “Auto Out of social contact” messages that can be configured to automatically send to anyone not on your friends or followers list. That way the person being summoned was “clearly not active on their social media account(s)” as the auto response was set up immediately.

If this trend were somehow able to grow throughout the country, i’m sure the social media companies would build some work around into their settings in a nonchalant way.

Anonymous Coward says:

In Arizona, in recent years, various governments (city, county, etc.) decided to put up speed cameras (you know, to keep us safe). When a motorist would speed by the camera, a picture would be taken and a citation of some kind would be sent to the home address attached to the license plate number. For a short time, the various governments pulled in huge amounts of money from these tickets. Then people started to realize that they didn’t have to pay the tickets unless they were served a citation in person (lots of problems with in person serving of citations, but that is for another day). Unsurprisingly, the amount of money being pulled in by the speed cameras dropped sharply, probably so much that the cost of maintaining the cameras and the legal fees associated with the photo tickets exceeded the money being taken in.

I have no evidence to support this, but I bet this bill is designed to make it possible to serve photo-radar tickets electronically so that people will actually have to pay them.

TheLoot (profile) says:

“Having someone Tweet “YOU’VE BEEN SERVED” with a link to a PDF isn’t that much different than having papers shoved into your hands at a crowded mall.”

Not really, it’s like giving someone a key to a deposit box with the papers in it. If you never actually posses the papers, even if you were aware that you had the capability to get them, it wouldn’t be legit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Abandon/Infrequent Accounts

“Does the bill have any requirements to “validate” a social media account that include recent activity?”

Yes. It requires that the defendant regularly accesses the social media page, and that the page actually belongs to the defendant, and that the defendant could reasonably be expected to receive actual notice. What EXACTLY that means is left up to the judiciary.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Abandon/Infrequent Accounts

” that the page actually belongs to the defendant, “

How would you determine if the page belongs to the defendant? On my own FB, I’ve carefully made sure there are no photos of me at all. My avatar is a photo of something else entirely. I also have not put in any personal information, such as address or work place. The closest anyone could come to identifying me through my FB is whom I’m FB friends with, but wouldn’t that not be enough?

Basically, unless the owner of the FB actually puts up personal information, how does one legally determine that that person actually owns that account?

alanbleiweiss (profile) says:

So. As an Internet marketer, I can access several services that let me “auto-post” to any of my various social media accounts. Without me actually logging in or visiting or checking.

How would that affect this? Blow it out of the water.

Now – let’s talk about slippery slopes.

To ensure privacy, such serving would be required to be posted as a private message to the account holder.

Since account holders shouldn’t just “friend” anyone or “follow” someone back without first seeing who their public persona makes them out to be, that would require a NEW law. One that authorizes the server company (on behalf of the court, law office or sheriffs department) to gain access to your private account through a back door required to be set up by the social media companies for this very purpose.

There you go. We just now entered into the toxic slime of privacy invasion.

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