To give law enforcement better tools in which to prosecute individuals who maliciously seek to do harm by impersonating someone online, the House Judiciary Committee this week examined legislation that would make online impersonation a crime in Pennsylvania, said Rep. Kathy Watson (R-Bucks/144th), author of the legislation and host for Tuesday’s hearing at the Warrington Township building in Bucks County.
“Technology and communication were designed to make our lives simpler and to add to its overall quality. But, sadly, some individuals have taken to the Internet or their cell phones to intentionally cause others great embarrassment and tremendous harm,” Watson told the committee. “These instances are occurring and they have led to tragic consequences in some cases. One case is too many, and if we can save someone the agony of being impersonated, then we’ll have done our job.”
Watson has introduced House Bill 2249, which would create the new crime of “online impersonation.” Under the legislation, a person commits the offense of online impersonation if he/she uses another person’s name, persona or identifying information without obtaining the other person’s consent and with the intent to deceive, harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten anyone by creating a web page, posting one or more messages on a commercial social networking site, or sending an email, instant message, text or similar communication. The penalty would be classified as a third-degree misdemeanor with a maximum $2,500 fine and/or up to one year in jail.
She emphasized that the crime would only apply if an individual uses malice with the sole intent of harming another person. This isn’t meant to criminally penalize those who are joking around but those who are, in essence, cyber bullying classmates, colleagues, people in authority, and others.
“When I think of online impersonation, it’s when someone creates a funny web page or uses someone else’s email address, but I can’t help but think of the legislation we passed just last year dealing with synthetic drugs, like bath salts, and how we need to update our laws to catch up with the times,” said Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Technology is used to harm others. In both instances, technology has gotten ahead of criminal law. Lawmakers need to give law enforcement the tools they need to catch up.”
The inspiration behind the legislation is Josephine Paskevicius, a Bucks County resident and teacher who was the victim of online impersonation last year. She told the committee of an instance in which two students created an email account in her name and then sent an email from that account to a student with the intent to harass her. The message was sent in such a way that the student believed it was from her teacher.
In another case in Bucks County, text messages that quickly turned sexual in nature were sent by two teenage boys pretending to be a 17-year-old Newton girl. The Guarna family testified about the frustration they encountered in finding out who was behind the texts and the harm done to their daughter’s reputation.
“Law enforcement’s frustration is about whether or not this is a crime,” said Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks), who was contacted about the Guarna case and is also a sponsor of the legislation. “People spend a lifetime building up a good reputation, and an act like this can completely destroy it. People seem to be able to hide behind technology.”
Much of the testimony at the hearing focused on the differences between online impersonation and identity theft and that prosecutors can only file charges if there was economic loss. In these cases, the consequences can be far more damaging with someone’s reputation at risk. Testimony also focused on the current crime of harassment and how this legislation differs.
Among those offering testimony were David Heckler, Bucks County district attorney; Andy Hoover, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); Jeff Stein, president, and Barbara W. Thompson, secretary and acting treasurer of the Pennsylvania Association of Licensed Investigators; and Dr. Justin Y. Shi, associate professor in Computer and Information Sciences at Temple University. Shi offered technical testimony about online identities, jurisdiction and evidence collection.
“The results of these activities can be – and have been – devastating,” said Heckler, who pointed to cases involving perspective job applicants, teenagers, domestic situations and others who had someone impersonate them with the intent on harming them. “We have always said that the law needs to keep up with technology. House Bill 2249 does just that, and it recognized that there are unscrupulous individuals who want to harm others, personally or financially, and who use electronic communications to complete their crimes.”
Ten other states have laws already on the books to address online impersonation, with numerous other states currently considering the new crime. According to the ACLU, there have been no challenges to the constitutionality of those laws by the organization. Most of the organizations offering testimony support Watson’s legislation and only offered minor modifications to strengthen the bill overall.
In addition to Marsico, House Judiciary Committee members who attended the hearing included ranking chairman, Rep. Tom Caltagirone (D-Berks), along with Reps. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery), Mark Keller (R-Perry/Franklin), Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), Keith Gillespie (R-York) and Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery).
According to Marsico, the Judiciary Committee plans to consider the legislation and any amendments to change the bill at its Sept. 25 meeting in Harrisburg.