What: New Jersey man appeals conviction for posting a fake sex ad on Craigslist.org--an ad purporting to be from his sister--in violation of a judge's no-contact order.
When: Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, ruled on March 13.
Outcome: Appeals court upholds conviction.
What happened, according to court documents:
A few years ago, Michael Taffaro, of Bergen County, N.J., was embroiled in a bitter probate dispute with his sister, Susan Taffaro.
Taffaro was ordered by a municipal judge not to have any contact with Susan. The order was broad, saying the no-contact rule applied "personally, or by telephone, in writing, or in any other manner directly or indirectly."
A mysterious posting subsequently appeared on Craigslist.org, the popular community Web site, purporting to be from Susan. It amounted to, in the words of one judge, "a salacious offer of sexual favors" that was "extremely objectionable" and involved "deviant sex acts."
Unfortunately for Taffaro, Detective Andrew D'Onofrio traced the Craigslist message to his computer. Taffaro admitted the message came from his PC but, in a twist, claimed that two of his friends were the culprits who composed and posted it.
Taffaro was charged with fourth-degree contempt for violating the no-contact order. During the trial, he claimed that he had tried to dissuade his friends Daniel Ng and Redner Portela.
According to a transcript of Taffaro's testimony: "(Ng and Portela) are saying, 'Oh, don't worry about it. It's a static IP, they can never trace it.' I said, 'Look, get that thing off, I'm not going to get even with my sister by doing something stupid. I've got an inheritance battle. I can't do nuttin stupid.'"
One way or another, the message was posted. Taffaro apparently claimed that Ng and Portela told him the message was removed, but it's nevertheless clear that it was on Craigslist long enough for the harm to be done. He also acknowledged that he never checked for himself to make sure the post was gone.
A jury convicted Taffaro of contempt and he was sentenced to one year of probation. He appealed, claiming that the trial judge was biased and engaged in "relentless" questioning while Taffaro was on the witness stand. He raised other arguments, including a claim that the police detective's testimony exceeded the detective's technical expertise and should not have been permitted.
The appeals court rejected all of his arguments and affirmed the jury verdict and sentence.
Excerpts from the opinion by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division:
Defendant next argues that the expert testimony of Detective Andrew D'Onofrio, the officer who traced the posted message to its source, exceeded his expertise in computer forensics and computer network analysis, and it thus violated (state rules). Defendant additionally claims that D'Onofrio's opinion was admitted in violation of the prosecutor's duty to disclose the substance of that opinion to the defense. Specifically, defendant focuses on a single comment by D'Onofrio that defendant was the individual who posted the objectionable message, and he argues that the admission of that statement, which constituted an opinion on the ultimate issue of guilt, was plain error.
At trial, D'Onofrio testified that the posting was initially traced, through Craigslist, to Elaine Norris, 2000 at Yahoo.com. However, it was later determined that the information was incorrect and, through use of defendant's internet protocol (IP) address, it was discovered that Verizon was the service provider and that defendant's computer was the message source. D'Onofrio conceded that he could not tell who actually pushed the computer's "send" button, because he was not present when the message was sent. However, he was able to rule out the likelihood that the computer transmittal system had been violated by a hacker, who was the real message sender, because a "victim-suspect relationship" existed between defendant and his sister that increased the probability that defendant was the source.
D'Onofrio proffered the following explanation:
"For example, if we had an e-mail that went out to our current Governor Cody as a threat and that e-mail came from St. Mary's School of the Blind, the head nun there that ran St. Mary's School of the Blind, we would be a little bit suspect that she would be threatening our current governor. So we would try to do a little bit more of an investigation to find out how it is that that IP address originated from there."
D'Onofrio continued by stating that the probability was low of finding that a random hacker would actually know the recipient of his message. Proof that an IP address was accurate was further strengthened when it was determined that a motive for sending the message existed.
D'Onofrio was then asked by the prosecutor:
"So after you look at the computer aspects of (your investigation) you testified that the conclusion you came to based on the forensics of the computer was that Michael Taffaro's computer had sent this message to Craigslist. The investigation that you just described, the totality of circumstances of the investigation, if we can call it that, did that change your opinion of who sent the e-mail?"
"No, it re-affirmed it, Ma'am."
In the context of the examination that had just taken place, it is reasonable to conclude that D'Onofrio's response related to defendant's computer, and not to him, personally. We thus do not regard the testimony of D'Onofrio (who was not an investigator in the case), in response to the prosecutor's questions on direct examination, to have constituted an impermissible opinion on the ultimate fact of guilt. If defense counsel had viewed the response as such, a strong objection would have been expected. It did not occur.