Cyberspace vs. CHP
A civil defamation lawsuit filed on behalf of a Lake Tahoe-based California Highway Patrol officer is raising important questions on Internet law and the right to free speech in cyberspace.
Gregory Mason, a CHP officer based in South Lake Tahoe, is asking for $1 million in damages from an Orange County couple for libel, after they posted an Internet Web site criticizing Mason and other Inyo County law enforcement officials.
Judy Komaromi of Fullerton, Calif. was arrested by Mason in 1993 after a high-speed chase on U.S. Highway 395 between Bishop and Ridgecrest. Komaromi was later convicted of speeding and felony evading arrest, and served four months in jail, with five years probation.
While she was incarcerated, Komaromi’s husband, Karl Hoelscher, constructed a Web site that gave details of her arrest and conviction, plus perceived injustices at the hands of Inyo County officials, and personal information on Mason. The site, titled “Small Town Justice,” refers to the incident as “The Raping of the Constitution.”
“This represents a real gray area in the law,” said Jim Mason, the attorney representing officer Greg Mason. “Somewhere, sometime, legislation has to come down that protects officers from being harassed on the Internet by convicted felons. Peace officers have very dangerous jobs, and something like this puts them in peril. Basically, we are suing to get this Web site taken down.”
But Komaromi has no intention of removing the site.
“My husband and I feel we have the right to free speech, and we are being harassed for speaking out,” she said. “In this country we have the right to criticize government officials, and they will not shut us up. They don’t want the truth to come out. That’s what they’re afraid of.”
All of that is a lot to chew on for one of nation’s smallest rural communities. The case is pending in the Markleeville Courthouse in Alpine County, where Judge N. Edward Denton is due to make a ruling on a default judgment for damages early next week – “default” meaning that the defendant failed to respond to the lawsuit in the specified amount of time.
Mason is seeking $1 million for emotional distress and physical trauma, in addition to a request that the Web site be taken down.
So Mason may receive a whopping amount in damages, or he may receive zilch. But the big question concerns the removal of the Web site, and the implications could be enormous. Although there are some federal laws concerning privacy and free speech on the Internet, the areas of libel and “public embarrassment” in cyberspace are not well defined.
“This is all still a gray area. It’s not clear right now,” said Seattle-based attorney Al Gidari, a partner at Perkins Coie who specializes in Internet law. “First of all, the truth is an absolute defense. It’s not defamation if it’s true. But this case raises some interesting questions about right to privacy, especially since it involves a police officer.”
Many states have laws of “qualified privilege,” in which it is a crime to encourage or aid in conduct that would lead to the damage of life or limb. But does this even apply to the Internet?
“I’ve seen cases where someone has posted personal information on a corporation’s CEO, for example,” Gidari said. “That sort of thing can be very aggressive. Where does free speech end and stalking begin? We’ll see a lot more of this in the future, I’m sure.”
But the Mason case features more wrinkles than just the Internet. There are racial overtones – officer Mason is black, Komaromi is white – and Mason’s attorney claims that Komaromi has also posted flyers in Inyo County calling officer Mason a “predator.”
Also, somehow, television’s “Judge Judy” got involved.
“It’s really out of control right now,” said Gregory Mason, a 20-year veteran CHP officer who resides in Markleeville. “It’s an interesting case. But I can’t really say anything about it while it’s in court.”
It all started in May 1993, as Komaromi was driving her yellow 1990 Corvette ZR-1 south on Highway 395, a flat stretch of desert in Inyo County.
Officer Mason attempted to stop her for speeding, and the ensuing chase reached speeds of “145 mph,” according to court documents. Komaromi was finally stopped when the CHP placed road spikes in her path.
Komaromi was arrested and eventually convicted of speeding and felony evading arrest, and sentenced to six months in jail and five years probation. She served four months in 1997.
But Komaromi claims that she was stopped only after Mason had made “sexually provocative overtones” to her at a truck stop earlier in the day.
Details of the alleged comments, which included references to Mason’s “ghetto slang talk,” were included on the Web site under the headline “Cops, Lies and Videotape,” a printout of which was provided by Mason’s attorney. A recent visit to the site revealed that the racial comments had been removed.
But Komaromi isn’t through. While admitting her guilt in evading arrest, she claims that she was treated unfairly by the Inyo County Sheriffs Department (where she was incarcerated following the arrest), the Inyo County Probation Department, the District Attorney’s office and at trial.
Earlier this year, Inyo County Sheriffs Deputy Eric Birmingham filed a similar defamation suit against Komaromi. The case was heard by none other than syndicated television’s Judge Judy, who threw the case out, according to Komaromi, due to Birmingham’s “unprofessional behavior.”
Producers of the show could not be reached for confirmation of the ruling.
“There were lies. Officer Mason lied in court,” Komaromi said. “The court documents show the inconsistencies in his testimony. That’s why he doesn’t want them on the Internet, because everyone would see that he lied.”
But Gregory Mason’s attorney, Jim Mason, paints Komaromi as nut who is trying to get back at an officer who arrested her.
“Greg Mason and his wife have been defamed by statements (on this Web site), which include racial and sexual overtones,” Jim Mason said. “There is a good peace officer out there who is in danger because of these statements.”
The judge’s ruling could go a long way toward defining such cases in the future.
Three defendants have been dismissed from the action. Mason had sued the State of California and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, each of which refused to fund his lawsuit against Komaromi. But a judge ruled that neither organization has a legal duty to protect an individual officer from being publicly embarrassed. Mason had also sued Rapid Site Inc., the Web domain host for Komaromi’s site. But federal law protects web companies from liability in such matters.
That leaves Komaromi and Hoelscher as the remaining defendants in the ground breaking case.
“There are very few Internet attorneys, and the ones we have are concentrated in metropolitan areas,” said South Lake Tahoe attorney Dennis Crabb. “It’s a specialized area, and the need just isn’t there yet. But it soon will be.
“This case reminds me of another one I read about recently,” Crabb said. “A woman made a claim against Bekins (Moving and Storage), because she was unhappy with a move. Bekins refused to pay. So the woman put up a Web site, asking others who had similar complaints to e-mail her. The site got tons of hits. And within 12 hours of when they got wind of it, Bekins had processed her claim and had a check to her in the mail.
“The Internet is a powerful thing, and we’re only now beginning to understand it.”
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