How social media evidence can adversely affect GA criminal cases

Many people in Marietta view using social media as an essential but ultimately harmless daily activity. Unfortunately, this seemingly innocent pastime can create various complications for people facing criminal charges. Reports indicate social media provides a growing source of evidence in investigations and prosecutions of both felony and misdemeanor charges. Unfortunately, the accuracy and legitimacy of this evidence is often questionable.

Easy access to potential evidence

In 2012, CNN reported that the use of social media evidence is becoming common in criminal cases. One survey found that four-fifths of the law enforcement authorities polled had used social media to gather evidence. Half relied regularly on this source and checked social media websites at least once a week for potential leads or evidence.

Many people believe the information they share through social media is private. However, the following situations can give law enforcement authorities access to potentially sensitive information:

  • Fake profiles - it's not uncommon for authorities to create fake profiles to gain access to a suspect's profile. In the same survey that CNN cited, 83 percent of authorities saw no ethical issues in using fake profiles.
  • Sharing by friends - law enforcement authorities may compel one of a suspect's online friends to provide access to his or her account and, in turn, the suspect's private information.
  • Requests for information - law enforcement agencies can obtain warrants or subpoenas to force social media companies to turn over data.

Critics of social media evidence worry that it violates people's Fourth Amendment rights. Proponents contend that social media users choose to share information, such as statuses, photos or location check-ins. However, users also share some things unwillingly. For example, many servers track IP addresses, which means social media users are unwittingly sharing location data at the time of each post.

Issues of legitimacy and interpretation

Social media evidence can come directly from a suspect or from posts that a person's online friends make that reference criminal activity, such as drug trafficking or possession. In either case, correctly interpreting this information or establishing its veracity can be an issue. Information shared through social media is sometimes untrue, and innocent activity can easily be misconstrued.

As an example, the Supreme Court is considering the distinction between violent speech, which is protected, and violent threats made via social media. According to The Washington Post, the justices have struggled to agree on what makes online speech threatening: the intentions of the person writing the posts, or the response that a reasonable person would have upon seeing the posts. Either way, proving definitively how a person intended online activity to be interpreted can be difficult.

This issue was recently underscored when social media activity resulted in a University of Georgia student facing felony charges. The student posted a comment that implied a threat to a building on campus, which authorities believed was legitimate. Although nothing happened, and the student maintains that the post was a prank, the student has been charged with making terroristic threats.

Questioning social media evidence

Social media activity can have harmful effects in a criminal case, since information shared online may be untrue or simply taken out of context. Anyone facing criminal charges supported by social media evidence should speak with an attorney for advice on challenging this evidence or otherwise addressing the charges.