Charlotte attorney Bradley Anderton was recently featured in a magazine article in which he discussed the issue of judges misunderstanding social media and technology and how that misunderstanding relates to sexual assault cases. According to the article, judges, often because of a generational gap, are unskillful regarding the intricacies of social media communication.
Anderton, of the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin, recently spoke with Lawyers Weekly about this issue, citing a case that he was part of as an assistant district attorney.
Anderton left the district attorney’s office in 2022 and signed on with James Scott Farrin, changing careers after deciding that he wanted to “stand up for the little guy instead of prosecuting him.” He practices in the areas of car accidents and personal injury and is a member of Assistance League Charlotte, where he volunteers as an attorney coordinator and attorney trainer in the Mecklenburg County Teen Court program. He also serves as a member of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, working with the auto torts and premises liability section.
Anderton graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in economics before earning his law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 2021.
OnlyFans, the website discussed in the interview, has been around since 2016 and is a social media platform that can be used by anyone, including writers, artists, cooks and fitness trainers, to post material. It is widely known, however, for being used by sex workers who post images and videos of themselves and interact with their fans via private messages. Content is made available for a monthly fee and one-time tips.
Because of the nature of their online sex work, the victim did not feel comfortable calling the police about the incident and instead took out a self-initiated criminal summons on the defendant. That system sometimes gives people confusion; here in North Carolina (and a number of other states), people can swear out charges on others by simply going to the magistrate’s office and explaining what happened to them. Oftentimes, magistrates are a rubber stamp and issue either a summons or a warrant. At that point, the DA’s office gets involved as the case becomes an active criminal case in the district courts. That is what happened here.
At trial, I presented the facts of the case as best I could, using the victim as a witness. Unfortunately, we lost the trial because defense counsel asked about the nature of the victim’s relationship with the defendant, which opened the door to a discussion about her work on OnlyFans. I objected, but criminal District Court is not like what we see on TV. It is not a court of record — there are no audio, visual, or stenographic records — and judges operate as both the finder of fact and gatekeeper of law. In other words, once the cat is out of the bag, there is no wrangling it back in.
Here, the judge had some confusion about what OnlyFans was and took a recess to learn about it. Once the evidence was concluded, the judge did not find the victim credible based on her OnlyFans work, and that was enough to give the judge reasonable doubt and therefore find the defendant not guilty. At that point, the case is over. There is no way to appeal; it is dead.
I was, of course, disappointed that I could not give this woman the closure she needed. But this is a common experience in district courts. When cases come down to one person’s word against another, getting beyond a reasonable doubt is nearly impossible.
Was there a consent issue in this case? Yes. That is what started the events which lead to criminal charges against the defendant. But, of course, the defendant was found not guilty because the case became a “he said, she said” situation without enough tangible evidence to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
More generally, however, I do think the intersection of sex work and consent is important to consider. People often seem to hear, “She was asking for it, because of ….” The reasons are many; her outfit, being at a bar or being a sex worker. Just because someone does sex work does not mean they shouldn’t have autonomy over their body, but I think attitudes are still very mixed on that.
In all cases, not just those like this one, understanding — or at least having awareness of — emerging technology and social media is crucial.