Her Facebook page was, according to state prosecutors, "a shrine to alcohol, lewdness and debauchery," and they used photos posted there to help put Alia Altajir away for three years in the women's prison in Niantic.
Last week, Connecticut's State Supreme Court heard arguments that those pictures should never have been allowed as evidence and that 26-year-old Altajir's constitutional rights were violated.
"Under any circumstances [the photos] shouldn't have come in," insisted Moira Buckley, one of Altajir's lawyers, during a special hearing at Western Connecticut State University. (The state's highest court occasionally takes its hearings on the road around Connecticut. This time, the Supremes were playing to a packed house of nearly 400 students and professors fascinated by the Facebook-related controversy. Altajir, who is still locked up, didn't attend.)
The original case stemmed from one wild night in 2004. Altajir, the pampered granddaughter of an Arab billionaire, had been drinking Skyy vodka with buddies and allegedly doing PCP. She ended up driving her mom's BMW 325 into the Housatonic River in Kent and killing her best friend, 18-year-old Dustin Church of Madison.
Altajir was initially charged with manslaughter. She agreed in 2007 to a plea bargain on a lesser charge, and got a year in jail and five years probation. Church's family said at the time they hoped this reputed "party girl" would turn her life around.
In 2009, after being released from prison, she admitted to violating her probation.
Altajir was caught as a result of a minor traffic accident in Greenwich. Police found the car she was driving at the time had no interlock ignition device, which was against the terms of her probation. She was also driving with a suspended license. Prosecutors claimed Altajir offered the woman in the other car a $1,000 bribe not to report the accident to the cops.
As if that wasn't enough, Altajir had another problem.
One condition of her probation was that she get a job. According to State's Attorney David Shepack, Altajir told her probation officer her "rich upbringing" meant she didn't really need to go to work.
Altajir is reportedly the granddaughter of Mahdi al-Tajir, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $4.3 billion.
It was at her 2009 sentencing hearing in Litchfield Superior Court that those Facebook photos came into play. And by all accounts, they left Judge James Ginocchio flabbergasted.
"These photos had impact," Buckley told the six Supreme Court justices listening to arguments about Altajir's appeal. "The photos are not harmless. ... The court seemed to be quite moved."
Judge Ginocchio, after viewing those Facebook photos in 2009, asked, "Where is the remorse?"
"Every one of these pictures looks like you have forgotten about what happened," he told Altajir. "When you kill a young person and bring unspeakable grief to a family, you don't get a second chance."
There was the photo of Altajir in a sequined bikini on a boat in Boca Raton, Fla., doing beer bongs. Another showed her "hood surfing" on a limousine. Others included her downing beer at a New York Yankees game and doing it up at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Some of the photos were noted as coming from an album titled, "Why I'm hot."
But others were posted from a different album labeled "Old Photos." There were more that had been posted by friends. The shots were posted after Altajir was put on probation, but there is a lot of debate about whether they could have depicted partying in earlier years.
The timing matters. The prosecutor argued the photos demonstrated Altajir wasn't changing her lifestyle, that she wasn't really sorry that her best friend had been killed because of her alcohol abuse. He claimed the photos could be dated by Altajir's hair color, which she'd changed after going to prison and on probation.
Buckley admitted that posting those photos and keeping the Facebook page up at all showed "terrible judgment" on Altajir's part. In fact, Altajir and her original lawyer had argued about that Facebook page before her sentencing hearing, Buckley told the justices.
But, Buckley added, "There is no date on a single photo. … We have no idea when these photos were taken. … There is no evidence these photos were taken during probation."
"You have writing on a Facebook page that is akin to rumor or writing on a bathroom wall," Buckley said of the captions on those photos.
"The United States Supreme Court has routinely held that sentences based on improper or inaccurate information is a violation of due process," she said.
Buckley urged the justices to uphold Altajir's appeal of her three-year prison term, insisting the sentencing court "abused its discretion" by allowing those photos as evidence.
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Timothy J. Sugrue argued the high court should uphold the sentence because Altajir's insistence on keeping these photos on her Facebook page demonstrated she felt no remorse about that fatal accident. He called her page "a public celebration of this kind of behavior."
Those photos depicted "the very behavior that led to the death of the young fellow, Mr. Church," said Sugrue. He said the fact Altajir's lawyer hadn't challenged the photos as evidence at the sentencing showed the pictures "were constitutionally reliable."
He also claimed the sentencing judge didn't "substantially rely" on the photos in deciding to send Altajir away for another three years.
Several of the questions from the justices seemed to indicate they had serious doubts about the photos, whether there was any proof when they were taken, and how they were used in influencing the sentencing decision. (The justices aren't expected to issue their ruling on Altajir's appeal for at least a few weeks.)
Later, during a question-and-answer session with WCSU students, Sugrue admitted that it "would have been better in this case if the state had authenticated the photos."
Both he and Buckley indicated Altajir's case could set new standards about how and when Facebook photos could be used in criminal cases.
Sugrue said where such evidence comes from matters less than whether a particular document or photo meets existing legal standards for reliability and relevance.
The Facebook issue hit close to home for a lot of the students who listened to the Altajir arguments. Many of them are taking law courses, and said they've already heard dire warnings from professors and counselors about the risks of putting compromising photos on their Facebook pages.
| Timeline of Events in the Case |
- 2004 Alia Altajir, who'd been drinking vodka and allegedly doing PCP, drives her mom's BMW 325 into the Housatonic River in Kent, killing her best friend, 18-year-old Dustin Church of Madison.
- 2007 Altajir agrees to a plea bargain on a lesser charge, serves a year in jail and gets five years probation.
- 2009 After being released from prison, Altajir admits to violating her probation after being caught driving with no interlock ignition device in her car, which was against the terms of her probation. She was also driving with a suspended license. At a sentencing hearing for that probation violation, Facebook photos of Altajir partying drew disgusted responses from the court. Questions have been raised about whether those photos influenced the way Altajir was sentenced, and whether those photos' influence was a constituional violation.
And it's not just law enforcement they're talking about. Prospective employers are also checking Facebook these days looking to see if applicants might be the sort of party animals they'd rather not hire.
Brett Waterman is a 23-year-old senior from Bethel who's had a Facebook page for three years. He says he's trying to keep "anything that could be connected with alcohol" from going up on his page, a task made tougher because his friends can and do post photos there.
These days, he says, "If I'm out drinking, I try to stay out of all pictures. ... No alcohol-related stuff."
What shocked Waterman the most about the Facebook controversy is how much can be made out of a simple photo of someone sipping beer. "Probably 70 percent of people drink beer," he says, marveling how a lawyer can make it look "like you're a bad person for drinking a beer."
Stephanie Thibodeau of Bethel is 21 and a junior studying law at WCSU. "I've thought about taking my entire [Facebook] page down," she says.
Thibodeau has already deleted party and drinking photos from her page after hearing what that kind of stuff can do to your chances of getting a job.
One of the things that struck her after listening to the Altajir arguments, Thibodeau says, is the uncertainty surrounding Facebook pics.
"You don't know when they were actually taken, or who posted them," she says. "You can't control what others put up."
Facebook has recently offered an option that will allow people to review any photos posted by friends before they appear on the page, but that wasn't available in 2009.
If Altajir had taken down her page, no one could have posted any photos. If the page had been canceled, the prosecution couldn't have used it against her. If she hadn't been driving illegally that time in Greenwich, she wouldn't be in prison now for any probation violations.
Alia Altajir's biggest problem wasn't controlling Facebook, it was controlling her life.