Considerable news attention is currently focused on the cruel hoax perpetrated against Manti Te'o during the 2012-13 football season. As investigations continue into 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.
Whether 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 people 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