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Judges Can Use Internet To Verify Facts

March 22, 2010

A federal appeals court ruled in favor of judges to be able to use an Internet search to confirm an intuition about a matter of common knowledge, according to a recent Reuters report.

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York’s ruling could encourage more Internet use by judges.

The case was brought about by an Internet search performed by U.S. District Judge Denny Chin, whom President Barack Obama has nominated to fill a vacant seat on the Second Circuit.

Prosecutors alleged that Anthony Bari violated terms of his release by robbing a Ridgewood Savings Bank branch in Bronx, New York.  Bari served 12 years in prison for bank robbery.

Chin looked at several pieces of evidence, such as bank surveillance video showing a robber wearing a yellow rain hat.  There was a yellow rain hat found in the garage of Bari’s landlord.

Chin said at a hearing that he resorted to Google Inc.’s search engine for help.  He said, “We did a Google search,” and “one can Google yellow rain hats and find lots of different yellow rain hats.”

Chin discovered that the government met its burden of showing Bari violated his supervised release terms.  He then sentenced the defendant to three years in prison.

Bari appealed the case by saying Chin should not have used the Internet to verify a fact “whose answer was not obvious.”  He said this violated a federal evidence rule that bars a presiding judge from testifying as a witness.

The government allowed the use of the Internet by Chin to stand, citing another rule that allows judges note facts “not subject to reasonable dispute” and which can be learned from accurate sources.

The appeals court said in its decision that most federal evidence rules “do not apply with their full force” in proceedings to revoke supervised releases.

The court said by using this “relaxed” standard, it backed up Chin’s effort to confirm his “common sense supposition” that more than one yellow rain hat is available for sale.

However, it went further to say that improved broadband speeds and Internet search engines cut the cost of confirming intuitions.

The court said over 20 years ago “a trial judge may have needed to travel to a local department store to survey the rain hats on offer.”

“Today, however, a judge need only take a few moments to confirm his intuition by conducting a basic Internet search,” it added. “As the cost of confirming one’s intuition decreases, we would expect to see more judges doing just that.”

Bari’s lawyer, David Hammer, said he had yet to discuss the ruling with his client.

“I’m surprised at the reasoning, which seems to authorize judges to use the Internet without any clear rules,” Hammer said. “As I read this, it could apply in any context where the normal rules of evidence are not strictly applied.”

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