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7th Circuit: Google v. Wikipedia citations

February 1, 2007

Judges and appellate attorneys should feel free to include Google satellite photos in cases to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

But information from online dictionary Wikipedia could be crossing the line.

One of the 7th Circuit's most vocal jurists – Judge Richard A. Posner – has talked about both in recent newspaper stories and case opinions.

"Wikipedia is a terrific resource," Judge Posner said in a recent New York Times article. "Partly because it so convenient, it often has been updated recently and is very accurate." But, he added: "It wouldn't be right to use it in a critical issue. If the safety of a product is at issue, you wouldn't look it up in Wikipedia."

That story on Monday highlighted dangers about courts citing Wikipedia in decisions – something the Supreme Court of the United States has reportedly never done but more than 100 judicial rulings have relied on.

However, that hasn't stopped Judge Posner and colleagues from using information from Google – specifically a satellite photo of an area where a crime happened in Indianapolis. Judge Posner pointed to it as a resource that could have helped clarify facts in a recent case.

On Tuesday, Judge Posner wrote a majority opinion in U.S. v. Boyd that came from a 2005 ruling by U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker in Indianapolis. The case involved defendant Artemas Boyd, who fired a weapon into the air after leaving the Guvernment Bar and Lounge on East Market Street in downtown Indianapolis. Leaving about closing time, he and his girlfriend walked into an area behind the bar, where Boyd fired six shots into the air.

No one was injured, but he was charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon. In sentencing Boyd to 46 months in prison, the judge also determined he was committing another felony by recklessly performing an act "that creates a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person."

Boyd argued that given the hour and fact that no one else was in the direct line of fire, his shooting did not create a "substantial" risk of causing bodily injury.

In the ruling, the 7th Circuit panel wrote, "We are distressed at the sloppiness with which the case has been handled by both sides. Neither party attempted to quantify the risk created by the defendant's conduct; and vague words such as 'substantial' are not a satisfactory substitute for data ... ."

The judges included a Google earth photograph to show the potential "substantive" danger of Boyd's conduct with the weapon. He noted that Judge Barker did not offer any findings concerning the number of people nearby, nor did attorneys offer evidence about apartments or office buildings in the vicinity.

Judge Posner wrote, "Less forgivably – for the enormous variety of the circumstances in which random shooting occurs may defeat the efforts to estimate the probability that a given incident would result in injury – no satellite photo (available free of charge from Google) was placed in evidence to indicate the physical surroundings."

However, Judge Posner and the panel affirmed the lower court's decision: "Despite these gaps, we are reasonably confident that the Indiana courts would hold that firing multiple shots from a high-powered gun in downtown Indianapolis for no better reason than an excess of animal spirits creates a substantial risk of bodily injury within the meaning of the (state) statute."

 

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