This post is about a case in which a defendant who'd been convicted of a crime argued, on appeal, that the trial court “erred by not excluding” a “Yahoo! chat dialogue . . . because it was a confidential communication.” People v. Karampal Singh Nakal, 2010 WL 1254836 (California Court of Appeals 2010).
According to the California Court of Appeals, this is how the case arose:
Coleen is a member of Perverted Justice, and was 35 years old at the time of [Nakal’s] trial. Perverted Justice members create internet profiles of 12- or 13-year-old children, and use those profiles in internet chat rooms to find adults that solicit children online. In other words, members of Perverted Justice are adults who act as though they are 12- or 13-year-old children, while chatting online with adults who believe that the Perverted Justice member is a child. On January 3, 2006, Coleen entered a regional chat room for California. Coleen was chatting from her computer in Michigan. Coleen used the screen name dark_dana_666. While in the chat room, Coleen was contacted by [Nakal], who used the screen name gavy_nakai.
While chatting, Coleen wrote to [Nakal] that she was a 12-year-old female in Riverside, California. [He] wrote to Coleen that he was a 20-year-old male in Rancho Cucamonga, California. [Nakal] asked Coleen if she had a boyfriend and Coleen responded that she did not, but that she previously had a boyfriend. [Nakal] asked Coleen if she had a camera or a picture of herself. Coleen wrote that she did not have a camera. [He] then asked Coleen to tell him what she and her ex-boyfriend did together. . .
People v. Nakal, supra. I’ll spare you the very graphic details of the chats these two had in the “regional chat room for California.” According to the opinion, after they’d been chatting for a while, Nakal asked Colleen if they could speak on the phone but she said she couldn’t because “her `mother’ would hear.” People v. Nakal, supra. The Court of Appeals says that after the two had been chatting for several days, they arranged to meet at what turned out to be a “sting house.” People v. Nakal, supra.
On January 7, at approximately 3:00 p.m., [Riverside County Sheriff’s] Investigator Peralta saw [Nakal] sitting in a vehicle near the sting house. [Nakal] had a view of the sting house from his vehicle. Peralta watched [him] sit in his car eating chili-cheese fries. After or ten minutes, Peralta approached [Nakal]. . . . and asked [him], `What are you doing in the area?’ [Nakal] responded, `Just sitting here eating lunch.’ Peralta asked [him] if he lived in the area, and [Nakal] said, `No.’ Peralta asked if [he] knew anyone in the area, and [Nakal] said, `No.’ At that point, Peralta asked [him] to step out of his vehicle. [Nakal] gave Peralta permission to search his vehicle. In the center console of the vehicle, Peralta found directions to the sting house.
People v. Nakal, supra. Nakal was charged with and convicted by a jury of 2 counts of attempting to send harmful matter to a minor with the intent to seduce the minor in violation of California Penal Code §§ 664 & 228. People v. Nakal, supra. On appeal, he argued, as I noted above, that transcripts of the chats should not have been admitted because the chats were confidential communications. People v. Nakal, supra.
Nakal specifically argued that “Coleen recorded his private online chats without any warning to” him and that the evidence should have been suppressed “because California law requires that both parties consent to a communication being recorded, and [he] did not consent to the chat dialogue being recorded.” People v. Nakal, supra. The law Nakal was referring to is California Penal Code § 632 (a), which provides as follows:
Every person who, intentionally and without the consent of all parties to a confidential communication, by means of any electronic amplifying or recording device, eavesdrops upon or records the confidential communication, whether the communication is carried on among the parties in the presence of one another or by means of a telegraph, telephone, or other device, except a radio, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500), or imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year, or in the state prison, or by both that fine and imprisonment. . . .
The prosecution responded by arguing that “the Yahoo! chat dialogues were not protected by section 632 because it was not objectively reasonable to believe that the Yahoo! chat dialogues were not being recorded, due to the dialogues being sent and received in a recorded format, i.e., writing.” People v. Nakal, supra. In his “reply to the prosecution’s” argument, Nakal claimed that
it was objectively reasonable to believe that the Yahoo! chat dialogues were confidential communications given the `intimate/sexual nature of the chat logs.’ Further, [Nakal] asserted that chat logs are different than e-mails or text messages because when the chat participants close the chat windows then `the information or data is lost, unlike an e-mail or text message which can be saved and viewed years later.
People v. Nakal, supra. Nakal had raised this issue prior to trial in his motion to suppress the chat evidence.
People v. Nakal, supra. In a
In a separate alternative argument, the prosecutor reiterated that [Nakal] did not have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy when participating in the Yahoo! chat. The prosecutor argued that a message sent in a recorded format, i.e., writing, belies any claim of expected privacy.
[Nakal] argued that while it is possible to retain Yahoo! chat dialogues, a reasonable person would not anticipate someone actually saving a chat dialogue, and therefore, it was reasonable for defendant to expect that the chat dialogue would be kept private.
People v. Nakal, supra. In ruling on Nakal’s motion to suppress, the trial court found
that a communication sent via the internet was `completely dissimilar to a phone call.’ The court concluded that the private communication protected by section 632 was likely intended to be the type of communication that occurs over a telephone. The court noted that a telephone conversation ceases to exist when the conversation ends, unless the conversation is recorded; however, internet communications, such as e-mails and instant messages, are sent via a recorded format, i.e., writing. The trial court concluded that `no person with knowledge or awareness of the technology as it pertains to [the] use of email and text messaging . . . could have any possible expectation of privacy. . . . ‘
Next, the trial court explained that a person chatting over the internet with a stranger would have no means of verifying the true identity of the person with whom he is chatting . . . and therefore, `it would be illogical for anyone to assume [an internet chat dialogue] is a private communication that is entitled to . . . privacy in any capacity.’ The court found it was `entirely unrealistic and irrational to believe’ that a stranger on the internet would hold a communication in confidence. Consequently, the trial court concluded that defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when participating in the Yahoo! chat dialogues.
People v. Nakal, supra. The court therefore denied Nakal’s motion to suppress this evidence. People v. Nakal, supra.
In ruling on Nakal’s argument that the trial court erred, the Court of Appeals found, first, that (i) there was “no dispute that Colleen willfully retained the Yahoo! chat dialogues”, (ii) no evidence showed Nakal consented to her doing so and (iii) § 632 applied to the communications at issue. People v. Nakal, supra. The Court then addressed Nakal’s argument that the chats were confidential communications:
[Nakal] expressed a desire for the Yahoo! chat dialogue to be confined to himself and dark_dana_666. Specifically, [he] wrote that he was afraid of dark_dana_666's mother discovering their communications, and `[p]eople . . . call[ing him a] child abuser.’ Consequently, we conclude that the circumstances reasonably indicated that [he] desired the communication to be confidential.
People v. Nakal, supra. The court therefore held that the trial judge “did not err” by denying Nakal’s motion to suppress the chat dialogues and evidence related to them. People v. Nakal, supra.