With Friends Like This: Texas Woman Charged With Publishing Picture of Undercover Officer Found On His Facebook Page

There is an interesting case out of Mesquite, Texas this week. Melissa Walthall, 30, has been arrested for allegedly posting a picture of an undercover officer in a narcotic case — a picture available on the officer’s Facebook page. Walthall was upset with the officer who testified against a friend in the case and found the picture on the Internet. She has been charged with “retaliation” even though she is not a party to the case and saw the officer in a public hearing. I have serious constitutional reservations about such a charge, even though I understand entirely the concern and anger of the police in a move that could endanger the officer.

The officer elected to publish his picture in a public forum and court visitors are not subject to any gag order from the court. There is no account of the officer’s name or image being withheld from the public. The police found that the posting posed a “viable threat to that officer’s safety.” To make matters worse, the defendant George Pickens (shown right) has a brother, Bobby Stedham, who made garage signs that identified the officer and was reportedly planning to distribute them. Pickens has a record of prior drug and disorderly charges.

Stedham, 26, has also been charged with retaliation. Even with Stedham, there are serious questions raised by the use of publicly available information to protest the work of a public servant. Of course, many retaliation cases involve otherwise lawful conduct such a appearing outside of a home or following an individual. Indeed, stalking cases are based on otherwise lawful acts done with an unlawful purpose. However, courtroom watchers were not subject to a court order on discussing or describing what they saw. Presumably, they could have rendered their own pictures of the testimony. Since the state has options to protect the identity of undercover officers such as testimony without court watchers or testimony behind a screen, the failure to seek such protections would undermine the criminal case. This is particularly the case with someone like Walthall who is neither a relative nor a witness. Accounts do not indicate whether steps were taken to conceal the name or face of the officer in the case.

Then there is the question of intent to do “harm.”

The Texas statute states:

§ 36.06. OBSTRUCTION OR RETALIATION. (a) A person
commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly harms or
threatens to harm another by an unlawful act:
(1) in retaliation for or on account of the service or
status of another as a:
(A) public servant, witness, prospective
witness, or informant; or
(B) person who has reported or who the actor
knows intends to report the occurrence of a crime; or/blockquote>

There are other reasons for publishing the image of an officer as part of a protest over his role or testimony or as part of an effort to learn more about the officer. Indeed, the picture was accompanied with the caption and question ‘Undercover Mesquite Narcotics’ and “Anyone know this bastard?” That could be seen as an attempt to gather information on the officer, which is difficult without a picture.

This is a far more serious example of cases that we have previously discussed involving citizens revealing speed traps or warning approaching drivers. Here there is certainly a more serious concern for the officer, but those concerns did not apparently lead to requests for protections in court. The question involves the criminalization of the disclosure of information citizens acquire in the public domain. Making such publications a crime could have significant implications for free speech, particularly with observers at protests who record clandestine police activities in public.

Source: CBS

27 thoughts on “With Friends Like This: Texas Woman Charged With Publishing Picture of Undercover Officer Found On His Facebook Page

  1. My question is was the officers Facebook page part of her undercover persona, or was it her real Facebook page?

  2. nick,

    Ah … good question but if you’re going to be testifying in Court as a cop why would you want your picture on a public forum? Somebody needs to explain that rationale to me.

  3. Blouise, if she had a Facebook page as part of her investigation it is actually understandable. It put her into the world of her subjects and Facebook is a superb resource. However, the officer had to assume when she took that step that her cover would certainly be blown if it came to a trial. She could have continued it possibly if there were an arrest and plea, as is usually the case. But in a trial you get to face your accusers and that’s the end of her undercover career in Mesquite, Tx. Hell, maybe a blessing in disquise, she could now get the hell out of Mesquite, Tx.

  4. It would seem a necessary element of the retaliation statute would be “an unlawful act” I don’t know if Texas is a state that makes posting of police officers with intent to cause them harm on the internet a crime, but absent that law I don’t see this being a successful prosecution.

  5. I moved to Texas and immediately began the the year long process of getting out of there…what a hole.

    That being said, why didn’t the officer simply use a curtain or other means to conceal their identity during a public open trial…seems like stupidity to me.

  6. Mespo,

    Again I think we are in agreement….. This officer lacks discretion to say the least….. Is he assigned to the right detail is a question I have….. Saw somebody called him a dufus….. That’s an understatement…….

  7. As a minor point; the officer in question is referred to as “he” several times in both the above and original articles. It just looks like a matter of confusion in some of the above comments.

    1) Undercover officers should reveal their identity in to the defense and in court at the end of an investigation unless there are additional actors involved in the criminal investigation who are not apprehended and/or there is an additional risk to the officer’s safety. Otherwise it would be difficult, if not impossible, to confirm portions of the officers testimony and their fitness to serve as a witness.

    2) At no point is there a question or accusation of malfeasance on the part of the undercover officer and these actions are purely in retaliation to the officer carrying out his duty. Unless she’s found to have violated the law through some other means then I agree she is not in violation of the letter of the statute.

    3) This is clearly and fundamentally different from “warning an oncoming car about a speed trap” as it targets a specific officer and deals with an entirely different category of criminal offense. Further, the flyers indicate both an attempt to notify the public about this officer’s involvement with undercover narcotics operation as well as attempting to solicit additional information about him.

    This defendant wasn’t upset about some perceived injustice, she’s mad her friend got caught. As far as I’m concerned this isn’t much different from some whack-job posting the home address of a judge. I’m a strong supporter of free speech but this situation skirts very close to the line where speech becomes dangerous.

  8. MASkeptic:> “This defendant wasn’t upset about some perceived injustice, she’s mad her friend got caught” <

    I think you're probably right, but I would add that perhaps she was angry not only that her friend got caught, but the METHOD used to catch her friend, namley undercover.

  9. So the schmuck put his puss on Facebook instead of his rear end? The prosecutor needs to be charged in federal court with a civil rights violation. The lady has a right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Here the grievance is that this public employee is so ugly that he offends the viewers of Facebook–the public. The prosecutor has lost any prosecutorial immunity here with his action. The lady just republished what was published. A sorry sight.

  10. Because it’s so common for narcotics LEO to frame and entrap people, steal drugs and sell hem and/or give them to snitches, and because of all of
    the harm caused by drug laws and the (selective) enforcement of them, I see no real difference between this and speed trap warnings. The NPR folks who “only” use legal drugs will no doubt favor the evildoers, but that’s the way the clock ticks. You’re either with us liberty and freedom lovers, or you’re with the drug law enforcement “terrorists”.

    Flail away.

  11. Outrageous arrest. He put his own pic on facebook, she recognized it and called him out as an undercover cop. There is no law against that. She should sue the police department. Why we tolerate this blatant illegal and unconstitutional arrests by police and prosecutors, I have no idea. Who do police departments work for anyway?

  12. I see several people libeling the undercover narcotics officer as the one responsible for this arrest and throwing insults his way even though there is no indication that he was in any way involved in the decision to arrest this woman or indeed even an indication that there was any suspicion that the arrest wasn’t 100% legitimate. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be allowed to have a facebook account just like the one billion (with a ‘B’ BILLION) other people on this planet who have one. As someone who deals with cyber security I promise that the details of your life aren’t as secure as you think. It is possible that he took steps to setup a hidden facebook account and she was able to get the picture because facebook’s security settings are a joke. Even if he had a public account, how does that make her actions any less of a loathsome invasion of his privacy?

    >Bill McWilliams
    You are absolutely correct, and that’s why I’m glad that this officer and the prosecutor for the case chose to reveal the identity of the undercover officer so that the defense could properly voir dire his testimony and ensure a fair trial. Now because someone present in the courtroom has a grudge against the officer they have chosen to target him for harassment for doing his job. That provides a discouragement for any future officers who may be working undercover to reveal their identity in court, making it /easier/ to frame someone or plant evidence. That encourages judges to issue more gag orders of questionable constitutionality to protect the identity of officers.

    When some whack-job right winger posts the name and home address of a judge who ruled against their pet racism this forum usually goes crazy. Guess what? That’s not illegal either. I guess I want to know why you think there’s a difference here?

  13. How about being closely monitored at all times? Ask NTEU Chapter 1 about that. Who was stalking who? Ask Jean if she wants to go to lunch.

    She works in a different office about fifty miles away. She seemed to be the favorite of her territory manager boss. A big fat Dago toad.

  14. It’s called privacy settings: Click the, “only friends can see my page” option. If this were done this would not have happened because the officer would have had to accept the friend request.

  15. yet another idiot police. First he put his own picture up.Then as I was told in court by the judge any one can say I’m going to kill you.He said even I can say it dosent matter till a crime has been committed.

  16. Stephen knorr 1, October 22, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    yet another idiot police. First he put his own picture up.Then as I was told in court by the judge any one can say I’m going to kill you.He said even I can say it dosent matter till a crime has been committed.
    ————————————————————————–
    They trashed some of the landscaping in my front yard. I know they did it, and I know where they live. They haven’t done it again. Do they want a disorderly conduct citation sent to their house in the mail? Perhaps a restraining order would be better. Milwaukee and Waukesha county both? Stop telling the Racine county cops to do other people’s dirty work.

  17. To post it was up to no good. She knew what he did for a living. It’s like outing Valerie Plame; same consequential effect.

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