Facebook: Bad News for Bigamists

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Richard Leon Barton Jr., who I knew right away was in trouble because the report used all three of his names, was charged with polygamy recently after his first wife learned he had another one and reported him to the police. She had become suspicious after he "unfriended" her on Facebook—unfriending a significant other is rarely going to turn out well—and a few months later a Facebook search turned up pictures of him getting married to somebody else. At that point, she said, "I put two and two together."

Barton, at least, had not posted these pictures himself, which makes him one IQ point smarter than the Australian guy who personally sent his second-wedding photos to his local newspaper, despite the fact that his current wife lived in the same town. See "Wedding Photo Tips for Bigamists," Lowering the Bar (May 4, 2010). Barton's problem was that he had no way to keep other people from posting his second-wedding photos (other than not having a second wedding in the first place), given that he probably didn't want to tell them he was committing a felony; and Facebook then made it easy for Wife No. 1 to find those photos even though she lived somewhere else. As the prior story shows, old media can cause problems for bigamists, too, but new media can spill the beans much more quickly. 

Barton and his first wife had discussed getting a divorce (partly because he had been in prison for years), but he never got around to taking care of that. Police speculated at first that Barton couldn't afford a divorce, but that seems to be one of the few excuses he hasn't made. "I let love get in the way," he said last week, in what I assume was both a bid for sympathy and something he had just heard on his car radio. ("I needed more wind beneath my wings," he might have said had he been tuned to a different station.)

Barton was charged with "polygamy" although he seems to have had just the two wives, which in most states would be called "bigamy." Michigan's anti-multiple-spouse law makes it "polygamy" to have two or more spouses, which is grammatically wrong but avoids the need to have separate statutes for bigamy and polygamy, I suppose. Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.439. I considered whether Michigan might be taking the view that as soon as someone marries a second spouse, there are three "spouses" in the mix and so "poly" is accurate, but that doesn't work. What you've got there, normally, is two monogamists with a bigamist in the middle, not three polygamists. Michigan can call the offense whatever it wants, I guess, but why not make it accurate?

They need to amend this thing anyway, frankly. The law provides that a person is not guilty of polygamy if they had "good reason" to believe the prior spouse to be dead, and also makes an exception for "any person whose husband or wife shall have voluntarily remained beyond the sea, or shall have voluntarily withdrawn from the other and remained absent for the space of five years" if the person doesn't know whether the spouse is still living. This is one of those situations where commas matter, because as written I think you could get remarried anytime your spouse doesn't come back immediately from a trip overseas – the five-year rule doesn't apply.

I am not advising you to test that interpretation, just noting that's what it says.