Understanding the role of social media in criminal investigations

Law enforcement are beginning to use social media to look for evidence in criminal cases.

In Carlsbad, California, a teenage girl was arrested after she was identified as the one who posted a threat targeting her high school. According to Reuters, the threat, which was anonymously posted on the social media site, Instagram, stated that the poster was going to open fire at the school with a specific time and day. While the reason for the girl's threat was still being investigated, the incident does illustrate how posting something on social media can be used as evidence.

How popular is social media evidence with law enforcement?

Although relatively new as a form of evidence, law enforcement agencies are beginning to see social media as a source of valuable information. CNN reports that over 1200 agencies consisting of federal, state and local investigators were recently surveyed. Many of them credited social media as a faster way to identify perpetrators and that "four out of five officials used social media to gather intelligence during investigations."

Some agencies are training their officers on how to be more social media savvy and are even bringing in social media experts to teach them how to search for incriminating evidence that could be used.

What kinds of information is law enforcement searching for?

Law enforcement is after anything that could suggest someone is involved in criminal behavior or in a criminal act itself. This might include photos of someone who is flashing wads of cash or making a gang sign. Posted admissions of guilt make it even easier for officers to make an arrest. For example, someone might be talking about their latest drug deal or how they participated in the death of a rival gang member.

One man was found guilty of traveling with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct after officers used information from his fake Facebook profile, which revealed he was contacting and communicating with young girls. Another man was charged with multiple crimes after he implicated himself in his postings on Facebook.

How is law enforcement obtaining this information?

There are several methods that law enforcement use to access people's social media sites. They may set up a profile and connect with the person directly or they could simply submit a subpoena to the social media site, asking the site to turn over information. Some companies have cooperated with these requests while others resist and argue that doing so is a violation of their users' rights.

Sometimes, friends and family members with a connection to the person will contact law enforcement and hand over their account to them.

Are social media posts protected against search and seizure?

So far, the courts have not viewed social media accounts in the same way that they view a person's home. In the eyes of one court, once a person shares information with friends or family, that information is no longer private, thereby exempting it from the illegal search amendment.

Any criminal charge in California comes with severe penalties, if convicted. Therefore, people may find it helpful to learn about their rights by sitting down with an attorney experienced in criminal defense matters.