In a case of apparent first impression, a Staten Island, N.Y., judge has ruled that a MySpace "friend request" can constitute a violation of a temporary order of protection.
"While it is true that the person who received the 'friend request' could simply deny the request to become 'friends,' that request was still a contact, and 'no contact' was allowed by the order of protection," Criminal Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. wrote in People v. Fernino, 07RI007322. "It is no different than if the defendant arranged for any agent to make known to a claimant, 'Your former friend wants to communicate with you. Are you interested?'"
The underlying conflict between the defendant, Melissa Fernino, 16, and the three victims, Sandra Delgrosso, 43, and her two minor daughters, stemmed from a romantic relationship between Delgrosso and Fernino's father, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the case.
Staten Island Family Court Judge Terrence J. McElrath issued orders of protection barring Fernino from contacting Delgrosso or her daughters.
Shortly thereafter, on July 26, 2007, Fernino allegedly sent separate friend requests to Delgrosso and both of her daughters via the popular social networking site MySpace.
In his four-page decision, Sciarrino described the usages of MySpace's "friend request" feature.
"If a person establishes an account from MySpace, she may receive and send messages from the Mail Center Friend Request Manager," the judge wrote. "Upon receiving such a message, the recipient could choose to do nothing, indicate that she approves of communication with the potential friend and create an opportunity for further communication by choosing 'Approve,' signal that she does not want immediate communication by choosing 'Deny,' or block immediate and future communications with the potential friend by choosing 'Spam'."
According to the decision, Delgrosso and her daughters chose a fifth option -- they reported the request to the police. Fernino was charged with three counts of second-degree criminal contempt for allegedly violating the orders of protection.
Fernino moved to dismiss the charges, arguing that the allegations, even if true, did not support the charges.
In a decision handed down Wednesday, Sciarrino denied Fernino's motion to dismiss, allowing the charges against her to move forward. He ordered a status conference for this afternoon.
The judge likened the case to another conflict in which the defendant indirectly contacted the victim. In the 1994 Appellate Division, 3rd Department, case People v. Johnson, 208 AD2d 1051, the defendant violated his probation by answering a personal ad with a letter purportedly signed by the victim, which resulted in an "unsolicited" communication to the victim from the person who placed the ad.
"In this case, the defendant used MySpace as a conduit for communication prohibited by the temporary order of protection issued by the Family Court," Sciarrino held. The MySpace Friend Requests fall within the court's mandate that, "Respondent shall have 'no contact' with Sandra Delgrosso."
Staten Island Assistant District Attorney Joseph Griffin is overseeing Fernino's prosecution. A spokesman for the district attorney's office said, "We're grateful that the judge recognized our contention that these MySpace.com e-mails allegedly sent by Fernino constituted a violation of the order of protection."
Victoria Navarro of Battiste, Aronowsky & Suchow on Staten Island represented Fernino. She did not return a call seeking comment.