Did a Facebook friend let another drive drunk?

For weeks I have been following the story of State Rep. Cherelle Parker’s DUI case. When the news of her arrest first broke it struck me as one of those stories news outlets would be compelled to run, and yet it wasn’t a great story. There were no salacious details that made us want to gawk or even want to talk about the peccadilloes of an elected official. It was – to be blunt – run of the mill.

If Parker were not a state representative, the story wouldn’t have made any of the local media outlets. How many other DUI arrests have you read about in our newspaper or on local Web sites?

However, when Municipal Judge Charles Hayden dismissed all charges against Parker less than six months after she was arrested on April 30 for driving under the influence, the story changed. Hayden summarily dismissed the testimony of two police officers in the 14th District, a district hardly known for crooked cops, and two breathalyzer tests, which registered Parker’s blood alcohol level at .16, twice the legal limit.

According to police, Parker was driving the wrong way on Haines Street, a one-way street, at approximately 12:15 a.m. The officers stopped her after she turned onto Baynton Street, where they administered the tests and arrested her. In dismissing the charges, Hayden said he found the two officers “less than truthful,” citing conflicting accounts as to whether or not there were other cars on the street at the time of the arrest.

Hayden was also concerned that one of the officers testified that he made 200 DUI arrests but only half of those were convicted.

When the news reported Hayden’s decision, which was to find there was no probable cause to stop Parker’s car that evening and tossing the breathalyzer tests as a result, it came to light that the judge and the defendant are Facebook friends.

For the one person out there who does not know what a “Facebook friend” is, it is when you share your profiles with each other, meaning they can see any information, pictures, comments you post to your page and vice versa. The State Attorney General’s Office (Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams recused his office from the case, citing his personal friendship with Parker) asked Hayden to recuse himself from the case to eliminate the appearance of impropriety. Hayden said no.

It is an interesting 21st century conflict, a first of its kind, presumably for both parties, and for the courts in general. So often privacy arguments flow from the petitioners to the bench not vice versa. It brings up the question of whether or not judges and elected officials for that matter have a right to reasonable discretion when it comes to mingling their official roles in unofficial venues such as Facebook.

It’s doubtful anyone would argue that Hayden does not have the right to have a Facebook page. The question is whether or not its appropriate for him to hear cases of people he knows well enough to “friend.” And of course, the question becomes who decides what it means to be friends on the new cyber frontier.

The real question for me though is why Hayden wouldn’t want to recuse himself. Obviously he ruled in Parker’s favor, and she has been vindicated. But what if people believe that she “got off” because she and Hayden know the same people (they are both reportedly from political camps that are in the Northwest Alliance, which the Inquirer calls “an influential coalition of city Democrats”)?

Parker decried her innocence beginning the day after she was arrested. It was barely a story. It certainly wasn’t a scandal. Now every motion, every request is reported. Is Facebook really worth all this trouble?

Jennifer Katz

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