Social Media Evidence in Criminal Cases

Social media is starting to take off its short pants and becoming all grown up. Currently, there are 7.2 billion people on the planet and of there are over 3 billion active Internet users (45% of the world’s Internet users). Nearly 2.1 billion people have social media accounts and close to 1.7 billion people have active social media accounts. Social media facilitate daily commutations among people, however, people leave small clues about their lives all over the Internet like fingerprints at the same time. Now police has been taking advantage of social media evidence in criminal cases.

“Show off” Behaviors Lead to Arrest

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Woud-be-offenders are increasingly posting videos and photos of their exploits online for the world to see. For example, a 20-year -old girl , Hannah Sabata, bragged in an online video that she was “having the best day of her her life”. In the online video that later went viral, she termed herself as the “Chick Bank Robber” and admitted stealing a car in York, driving to Waco and committing a bank robbery. She told the bank teller that she had a gun and the teller had several minutes to give her cash, The teller did as she was told and Sabata walked away with more than $6,000. She created the video when arriving at her home, telling her story via subtitles against the backdrop of music by the rock band “Green Day”. Unsurprisingly, she was arrested a few hours later and was sentenced to prison. Sabata’s story may sound ridiculous and stupid, but the fact is that there are lots of criminals who can’t resist bragging online after crimes. As a result, their dumb behaviors become a boon to police and prosecutors across the country.

Mine information about suspects

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Despite these absurd “show-off” behaviors, some other information may not that easy to find and take a little more time and efforts. Instead of sharing their information to all, the majority of suspects tend to have their social media settings as private as possible. Nevertheless, their family, friends or anyone relevant may not be so savvy as them, offering police opportunities to collect information by looking at what a suspect posts on those people’s public pages. Drug dealers usually post innocuous public updates that include location information in an online community, so clients as well as police unfortunately know how and where to find them.

Seek for help from witnesses and victims

It’s not surprising that police spares no efforts to look for people’s help by posting suspects’ information and updated crime descriptions on social media. Local polices usually post them on their own websites or social media accounts, like Facebook’s or Twitter’s, and find it a good way to draw local people’s attention and get substantial help. Recently, on October 14, the Manor (Manor, Texas) Police Department actively conducted a social media search for a woman stealing a pickup truck at a gas station. After the initial story was posted, the stealer’s identification was soon confirmed as Vicky Field of Copeland. A warrant has been issued for her arrest on charges of aggravate robbery with a deadly weapon which is a 1st degree felony. Manor Police expressed the appreciation to the community members who identified Ms. Fields and shared the post across social media. Meanwhile, more crime information was exposed and the police is now seeking for further help to track Ms. Fields. such method to identify and approach suspects has not been a novelty any more, especially for local polices and communities.

Use fake profiles to lure suspects

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Going undercover by creating fake online profiles to approach a suspect is very controversial but effective. Police would like to do so, but defendants always argues it’s not legal. However, last December, United States District Judge William Martini just denied a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence collected from is Instagram profile after he connected with an undercover account created by police officers. The Judge rules that law enforcement can create fake social network profiles in order to search through a suspect’s account. In order words, cops now can lure suspects into “friending” them and then use the content of their Facebook, Instagram or other social media accounts against them in court.

More Legal Concerns

Besides good news brought from Judge William Martin, federal law provides that in some circumstances, the government may compel social media companies to product social media evidence without a warrant. The Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) governs the ability of governmental entities to compel service providers, such as Twitter and Facebook, to produce content and no-content customer records in certain circumstances.

However, the SCA ,which was passed in 1986, has not been amended to reflect society’s heavy use of new technologies and 4electronic services, such as social media. Therefore, courts have been left to determine how and whether the SCA applies to the varying features of all kinds of new social media services. It still remains a very tricky issue to define a defendant’s constitutional rights regarding social media. Furthermore, it’s much more strictly regulated when a defendant seeks for social media evidence as support, which makes people doubt whether social media evidence is legitimately fair enough or not.

In conclusion, social media evidence has become a powerful weapon of polices in the battle against crimes. Four different methods are applied either separately or integrally, but there are still some legal concerns to be dissolved.

10 comments

  1. Hi Luyuan, thank you for posting on how police are using social media for evidentiary purposes in criminal cases. I could not help but think about the recent story regarding the woman who was live-streaming as she was drunk driving – you might find the article below of interest:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3269963/Florida-woman-arrested-live-streams-video-driving-flat-tire-screaming-f-ing-drunk-motorists-heard-honking-her.html

    Also, a few weeks ago, I wrote a post on the ethical issues that arise from social media, and the admissibility of evidence was one facet of my research. It was interesting to hear your point of view on how social media is actually helping to provide evidence – a nice perspective that differs from my overcautious lawyerly brain!

  2. Interesting blog post! I think this is a cool follow-up article to our last speaker, Professor Chang. Like you mentioned, social media is definitely powerful for law enforcers, but the law is still adjusting to incorporate social media in a fair way.

    This reminds me of a show I used to watch called “To Catch a Predator.” The premise of the show was that police officers would make fake accounts pretending to be young kids wanting to meet up with older men. When the men showed up, police officers and a TV crew would be waiting for them to talk to them about the crime they were intending to commit. The following article depicts the issue relating to social media fake accounts and the inability to prosecute the “predators” because the conversations were captured online.
    http://www.nbcnews.com/id/19486893/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/da-refuses-prosecute-catch-predator-cases/#.Vifp3n6rTBQ

  3. Stories such as the ones you posted make me lose faith in humanity sometimes. How can anyone think it’s a good idea to advertise the fact that they’ve committed a crime on social media for the world to see? That said, our apparently over-reliance on social media pages has caused me to rethink my Facebook presence. Although I’m not quite willing to delete my entire account because of how easy the site makes it for me to keep up with old friends, over the past several weeks I have been systematically removing content from my page – untagging photos, deleting posts, etc. For better or for worse, anything can be used against you, including things that may seem perfectly innocent on the surface. For example, I came across old status updates from freshman year (nine years ago) that I know were meant in jest, yet could easily be misconstrued as inappropriate or even violent in nature – again, in a world where digital traces hang around, that content had to go. My goal is remove… well, everything.

  4. This post was very eye-opening to read. I have never once heard of anyone bragging about committing a crime, especially to the public. This idea seems incredibly absurd to me that anyone would even do this. I can see how social media can help out law enforcement in many different ways. Like you mentioned in your post, they can track their location, learn more about the suspect and even gain clue of their operation. I enjoyed reading this post because it had a lot of new facts that i have never really thought about. Social media is definitely a great resource for law enforcement to use when wanting help from the community around them.

  5. Nice post. Agreed, that as we move into a more “pan-opticized” society, the ability to track down criminals is only going to go up. I do think there are some potential limitations/ downsides of this ubiquitous monitoring, though. Very Orwellian.

  6. Great thoughts! The idea of bragging about robbing a bank via social media is terrifying. I think one of the main problems with social media is how it increases narcissistic tendencies. The “selfie generation” is becoming more and more self-absorbed. As we compare ourselves to the digital personas of others, it’s overwhelming. There seems to be a push to brag and tout your accomplishments via social media in order to keep up with peers.

    It is very cool that as the reach of social networks increases, it becomes easier to crowdsource potential issues and crimes. From the Boston Marathon, it’s astounding that Twitter uses could help identify the bomber from blurry camera screenshots. Using fake profiles to lure subjects has great potential, but I do wonder about the ethical concerns.

  7. I got a great laugh from the Sabata story! She definitely isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Hearing about the legality status of police creating fake social media accounts was quite interesting. I did not realize that their were defensible positions for the accused in certain situations. I feel like if you post anything on social media than that would be fair game, but I see where a private conversation using social media can be trickier to determine the legality status. It would be interesting if bills are created to help define this matter more clearly. What would be even more interesting is if social media sites attempted to interfere with such operations. I could see them considering it in order to help users have more private accounts, but something tells me that that would be unlikely.

  8. Great post! I do agree with posts above that mention that there is both a positive and a negative aspect to social media monitoring for criminal activity. Clearly there is the issue of privacy when it comes to personal and confidential information on a profile. People feel very differently about this issue depending, but I can definitely see why some people find it very concerning. On the other hand, if this is a useful tool to comb out many criminals walking the streets, I am all for the surveillance. If you have nothing to hide, I think it can only make society more safe.

  9. Love this! Your section on activating the communities on social media to keep an eye out for criminals/criminal activity or coming forward as witnesses reminds me of getting amber alerts on my iPhone this summer &a couple weeks ago, as well as notifications from BC during the bomb threat and while the Boston Marathon Bomber was being chased. On one hand we have all these privacy and security concerns around have our phones on our person all the time (all that data!), but on the other hand cases like these showcase the amazing ability to inform and activate huge amounts of people.

  10. Interesting post, Luyuan! Very well researched.

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