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Social media increasingly used by law enforcement in criminal investigations

Social media increasingly used by law enforcement in criminal investigations

According to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, an 18-year-old Milwaukee man walked into a bank with a note that said “give me money or die” last month. He handed it to the teller and left with more than $1,300. After using surveillance cameras and collecting fingerprints, an investigator identified a suspect and viewed his Facebook page. The investigator discovered the young man in the social media profile was wearing the same sweatshirt as the suspect on the videotape, and the manufacturer noted that only 40 such shirts had been made. The suspect was arrested and charged with robbery.

Pew Research estimates that nearly three-fourths of all adults who use the Internet are also using social networking sites. The prevalence of online media sites is proving to be a useful tool for law enforcement as they work through criminal investigations.

Social media usage

There are a number of ways that law enforcement are starting to use social media to solve crimes. Thanks to geo-tagging, which enables users to denote their physical location at the time of their post, investigators can identify places for either where a crime occurred, or where a suspect was.

A Lexis-Nexis survey of 1,200 law enforcement professionals found the following:

  • YouTube and Facebook are the platforms most widely used during investigations.
  • 67 percent of respondents noted that social media enables them to solve crimes quicker.
  • Law enforcement use networking sites to review threats and collect evidence.

According to the report, agencies that serve smaller populations tend to use social media more than their larger counterparts.

When is it admissible?

For social media evidence to be used in court, it must be proven to be authentic and relevant. While relevance to the case may be easier to demonstrate, authenticity can be a problem when it comes to electronically stored information. For example, a blog printout may not be authentic if it lacks a timestamp and web address or if it does not have a witness declaration.

How the information is obtained also matters. In most cases, law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to gather information from a social media account. The Lexis-Nexis survey found that challenges to search warrants that target social media are upheld 87 percent of the time. Additionally, the Stored Communications Act compels providers to produce content in certain circumstances when authorities lack a warrant. However, some argue that the practice is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Courts may respect privacy settings on social networking sites, but it depends on how the information was collected. As social media continues to evolve, so too will its role in trying to prove or disprove criminal charges increase. Anyone with questions regarding how social media can affect them in a criminal investigation should contact an attorney.

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