Did the Perpetrators of the Manti Te'o Hoax Commit Any Crimes in the Phony Girlfriend Scam?

Considerable news attention is currently focused on the cruel hoax perpetrated against Manti Te'o during the 2012-13 football season. As investigations continue small golden-dome.jpginto this national news story, a major issue will soon become whether any crimes have been committed. Accordingly, the West Virginia Personal Injury Law Blog turns to the crucial question, did the perpetrators of the hoax against Manti Te'o commit any crimes?

It appears that certain individuals impersonated or fabricated a girl's persona in order to induce Manti Te'o (a star linebacker on Notre Dame's football team) to believe he was emotionally involved with the girl. The story apparently became too big for the perpetrators when Notre Dame defeated Michigan State in September to leap into the national spotlight and the hoaxers then faked the girl's death, leading to even more attention than before. After cutting off contact with Te'o, the scam artists then waited until December to call Te'o up and essentially reveal the hoax, by claiming the girl was not, in fact, dead. In the meantime, dozens of media outlets were fully taken in by the story. Meanwhile, Notre Dame enjoyed a spectacular regular season, going 12-0.

Thumbnail image for crime.jpgWhether or not a crime was committed may depend critically on where the hoax was perpetrated from. In California, New York, and Texas, impersonating someone online can be a crime. Louisiana also has a law against impersonating someone online. Contrary to some reports, a financial motive such as extortion does not have to be part of the hoax in order for a crime to have been committed. For example, in California, if the impersonation is done with the intention to simply "harm" another person, that is sufficient to trigger criminal prosecution ("for purposes of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person"). In New York, intent to "injure" is sufficient and that certainly could include emotional injury or distress. In addition, in Louisiana, it is enough if the impersonation is done "maliciously." Texas likewise allows the charge if the purpose is merely to "harm" the victim in some unspecified way.

A secondary question is whether impersonating a non-person is actionable under the statutes, if it turns out the identity of the Teo's "fake girlfriend" is entirely fabricated. The California statute appears to require that the impersonation be of an "actual" person. Texas suggests that merely using identifiers "of another person" may be sufficient. Finally, federal prosecutors have recently pioneered "terms of service violations" as an aspect of "unauthorized use of a computer" - a federal felony. If that theory applies, the hoaxsters would not be safe anywhere under U.S. jurisdiction. Another question will be whether there are civil remedies - i.e. could Manti Te'o or others sue the perpetrators of this hoax by filing a civil claim for fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress or some other tort? The criminal investigations will probably come first.

Given the ruthless and vicious nature of the hoax against Te'o, the number of Thumbnail image for Manti2.jpgpeople taken in and the national attention drawn, the perpetrators could soon find themselves in the crosshairs of a prosecutor who could use the law not only to enforce a measure of justice in this case but also to bring the investigatory tools of the criminal law to bear, so as to determine the number of people involved, their level of culpability, as well as whether any excuses, defenses or justifications exist for what appears to be extraordinarily appalling conduct.

--Christopher J. Regan

2 Comments

Chris,
Eileen's brother here. Likely my years in the Marine Corps, but this story is less than shocking. Alot to consider, but my feelings are that Te'o is not the most socially savvy individual and he has unfortunately overplayed who he is and this situation exploited that. I blame the media for that because I watched him play in high school during his junior and senior years when I was stationed in Hawaii. First time I saw him I had no idea who he was and what I was about to see. For two years I saw a tremendos talent whose field conduct and sportsmanship were exemplary. I was shocked and thrilled when he chose ND and have enjoyed watching him, despite some lean times, over the past four years.

Frankly I wish the story would just go away. He is a young man who got caught up with something and didn't know how to handle it. That happens with young people. Sometimes the snowball gains momentum and all of a sudden you are in the middle of an avalanche. May not of been his intention, but I think he got caught up in playing the role the media was promoting and he strayed from his genuine base and it bit him. No crime in that. The fools are the media and stories like this afford more platforms for idiots to criticize and comment. It is their shallow minds and incompetence that really should be highlighted.

Yeah the internet relationship thing is weird to me, but I'm not new to it. I have had several Marines essentially get involved in things like this and it spins your head. I actually had a Marine marry a girl who had a terminal illness , via proxy, who he had an online relationship with. As crazy as some situations have been I've learned that the individuals do not admit to the weirdness that is perceived by others. They fall back to portraying themselves as unselfish romantics and as one who stands on a moral highground well beyond that of the normal person. In Te'o's case he had to do that with a national audience watching.

Although a star ND football player it does not take away from the fact that he is a 22 year old young man with no life experience beyond a college campus. Hawaii is not the epicenter of sophistication and it is a small island that is far away and essentially a day behind the mainland. That environment can not be discounted. Bottom line from me after this ramble however is that they should just leave the young man alone. No crime committed on his part. Move on and let the guy define himself like the rest of do........for what we accomplish and contribute tomorrow. Afterall isn't Ray Lewis just a terrific guy and someone we should all drool over even though he was present at the scene of a murder and no one was convicted and sent to jail. Oh thats right Ray did have blood on his clothes, but he paid the families of the two dead men a settlement. And now he says "God is unbelievable." I like Manti and wish him only success in the future.
Sorry if this was a waste of your time.
Andy

Hey Andy, great to hear from you --it's been a long time. I agree -- I have experience with people perfectly capable of being duped liked this and that makes all the difference in how I see it. It's hard not to feel for a guy trusting enough to fall for this and to have to learn the lesson this way, in this much of a spotlight.

Ray Lewis continues to boggle my mind. It's one thing to receive forgiveness, but the adulation he receives is tough to take when he admitted obstructing justice in relation to two unlawfully killed human beings. Pete Rose is still on the outside looking in -- never covered up a murder that I've heard. I hold no brief for cheaters but this weekend Ray will be treated one way and Lance another. It's a strange world.

Anyway, got to see Eileen in Miami -- all the highlights were pregame, but we did well with what we could control. She looked great.

I hope you're doing well and Kate and Noreen, right? And your folks too. Sorry it's been so long -- you all are a favorite family of mine.

Semper Fi/Go Irish,

Chris

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