Social Media and Your Criminal Charges: What You Need to Know

January 22, 2019

Social Media and Your Criminal Charges: What You Need to Know

If you’re facing criminal charges, your attorney will likely advise you to resist the urge to discuss your case. With the advent of technology, the admonishment goes further. No doubt you’ll be reminded of the dangers social media could pose to your criminal legal defense.

All things considered, it should come as no surprise. In investigating criminal matters, the police may look into your social media postings. This could include incriminating photographs you put up on Facebook or Instagram. By the same token, your random tweets may give the prosecution some extra help in developing their case against you.

In the meantime, the Pennsylvania courts continue to develop new law regarding social media. For one, there’s a question concerning the secrecy of the social media policy adopted by the state police. At the end of last year, the news reported that the Supreme Court would consider whether or not the police should be required to share how they use the social media data in their investigations.

Of interest, however, is another case decided by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in March of 2018. Commonwealth v. Mangel could prove helpful to some criminal defendants.

Social Media Posts Deemed Inadmissible

The Mangel decision is a case of first impression, meaning that this is the first time the issues in it have been reported by the courts.  More particularly, the court decision deals with the authentication of social media posts.

According to the facts of the case, the police charged Tyler Kristian Mangel with assaulting another young man at a graduation party. As part of its investigation, the Commonwealth sought and was granted authorization to obtain Mangel’s Facebook records.

As the trial was set to begin, the prosecutor filed a motion seeking to introduce screenshots from a Facebook account for a “Tyler Mangel.” The proposed documents were undated and came from mobile device chat messages. Additionally, the prosecution sought to introduce a Facebook photograph posted by someone else. The picture showed bloodied hands.

Defense counsel objected to the introduction of the social media posts as evidence. When the court conducted a hearing, a police detective testified as an expert in computer forensics. She took the court through the process that formulated her opinion that the Facebook account belonged to Tyler Mangel.  The registered email and cell phone number matched the defendant’s credentials.

The judge personally asked the detective if she could testify to a reasonable degree of computer and scientific certainty that the screenshots came from the same account and belonged to the defendant.  She replied in the affirmative.

In the meantime, it was the next response that became critical. When questioned, the witness admitted that she could not testify with reasonable certainty that Mangel made the posts in question. It was possible that someone other than the defendant accessed his account.

On cross-examination, defense counsel elicited other information from the detective.  She did not obtain an IP address for the Facebook account she claimed belonged to the defendant. Meanwhile, Mangel’s attorney used his personal cell phone to demonstrate that he found other Facebook pages listing the name Tyler Mangel. Notably, the defendant never admitted that the screenshots came from his account.

In making its decision to disallow the Facebook screenshots into evidence, the court referred to other previously decided cases involving authentication of e-mails and instant messages. Social media accounts can be accessed from anywhere provided that a user name and password were available. Therefore, introducing the posts into evidence “presents additional challenges because of the great ease with which a social media account may be falsified, or a legitimate account may be accessed by an imposter.”

Authentication of Social Media

Although the social media posts could not be authenticated in the Mangel case, that’s not to say they cannot in others.  Introduction of evidence must be done on a case by case basis. The fact that the documentation appears to come from a criminal defendant’s account is not enough.

In considering authenticating social media evidence, the court will need proof that corroborates that the defendant actually authored the communications. This evidence can be either direct or circumstantial.

Contact Us

Mazzoni Karam Petorak & Valvano has extensive experience representing criminal defendants. If you are charged with a crime, we would be pleased to meet with you concerning your defense. Contact us to schedule an appointment.

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