Social media used to be solely the realm of teens and hipsters. Of course today, everyone and their grandmother has a Facebook page and even the cops have taken to Twitter.
In fact, law enforcement agencies have increasingly been tapping into social media, not only as a means to connect with the local community but also as a way to investigate and potentially solve crimes.
What our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers want to make sure people realize is that just because they are not “friending” their local sheriff doesn’t mean that the photographs and status updates they post are invisible to those agencies. In fact, you should assume that all electronic communication has the potential to be viewed by virtually anyone.
A recent survey of the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that of 600 law enforcement agencies polled, some 92 percent utilized some form of social media. Nine out of 10 used Facebook, half used Twitter and about 40 percent used YouTube.
Roughly two-thirds say it has served to boost their community relations. But the majority say it has been more helpful with the investigation of crimes.
Among the more routine activities in which law enforcement agencies are involved:
Review social media profiles of victims and/or suspects;
Establish undercover social identities to gather information;
Post surveillance videos or images in the hopes that the public may be able to assist in crime-solving.
Another common technique involves posing as underage individuals in the hopes of catching individuals suspected of statutory rape or other crimes against children.
In many cases, departments are also seeking crime tips from the public through these avenues. It’s unclear how many crimes have been solved through social media and whether it represents an increase from before.
But we do know that many cases have been affected by information obtained on social media sites. An example provided in a recent CNN story details how images of a suspected gang member in New York City ended up in a courtroom. The photographs showed him flashing gang signs, and there were a number of incriminating posts that made reference to past threats and alleged violent actions. Although the posts were technically “private,” one of his “friends” allowed police to have access to his page. A federal judge subsequently ruled that the defendant lost all claims to privacy when he shared certain details with friends.
Another survey on social media and law enforcement found that Facebook was the most fruitful source of investigative information. The second most fruitful was reportedly YouTube.
In Ohio, the University of Cincinnati’s Institute of Crime Science collaborated with area police to create databases of information that was scraped from a variety of social networks. That information was then tied to existing police records and phone records and then, using electronic algorithms, police were able to establish links between suspects.
What was once a few officers checking social media profiles in their downtime has since become a primary focus of operations.
Still, police can’t be successful without your help. What ends up trapping many people is the fact that they plot or boast about crimes in these forums, in some cases even uploading photos that may be incriminating. This in turn provides prosecutors with much of what they need to convict you.
No matter what situation you’re in, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer to explore your options.