Social media is typically used for recreation and entertainment. The medium has also become a powerful tool for criminal justice professionals.
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are fully interactive channels of communication — and they are providing new ways of finding facts. Criminal justice and social media are joining forces as investigators can track criminal behavior and bring fugitives to justice. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, up to 96.4 percent of law enforcement agencies in one survey reported using social media in some capacity. It’s all a part of law enforcement’s ever-evolving efforts to protect the public.
Citizens have aided in these efforts by reporting info on criminal confessions and sightings through these networks. After all, the vast majority of Americans are active on social networks to some degree, including criminals.
Criminals have even exposed their own guilt on social media. Some have posted boastful videos of criminal mischief on YouTube. Others have tweeted self-incriminating remarks.
Social Media and Criminal Justice
The role of social media in criminal justice is growing. This trend has led to increased demand for officers who know how to use social media. Some officers have their own knowledge of social networks, while others are studying up on each platform to add new skills to their crime-fighting arsenals.
Judging by current patterns, social media could eventually become one of the primary tools of crime-solving. How is social media used in criminal justice? Law enforcement is using it in a variety of ways.
The Urban Institute and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) surveyed 539 law enforcement agencies in a 2016 study. According to their research, more than half of the surveyed agencies reported that they have specifically contacted social media companies for evidence in investigations. Specifically, 76 percent of agencies use social media to solicit tips on crimes and 70 percent use it to gather intelligence for investigations.
An Online Game of Cat and Mouse
While criminals sometimes play right into the law’s hands on Facebook and Twitter, criminal justice professionals have generally taken the lead in identifying suspects on social networks. Throughout their searches on these networks, investigators have managed to find missing people, identify criminal suspects, get tips on criminal activity, and track organized crime.
Investigators get no special privileges when it comes to obtaining info about users on social networks. The networks — which all have pre-existing privacy policies — will not hand over info without a warrant or subpoena.
Many social media users do not understand they can’t permanently delete their activity on social media. Networks can, in fact, retrieve deleted info and provide it as evidence in a criminal investigation.
According to Facebook’s Government Requests for User Data, the social media platform saw more than 50,000 total requests in the U.S. from January 2019 to June 2019 — more requests in six months than ever before and up from 42,466 the year prior. These requests involved 82,461 user accounts. About 3,000 of these requests were emergency requests, while more than 47,000 were requested through a legal process, the majority obtained through a search warrant. Out of all of the requests, 88 percent had some data produced.
It often takes more than a mere photo, tweet, or blog entry to solve a case. When investigators manage to subpoena an account holder’s info, they’re still obligated to verify whether the name on the account belongs to the actual suspect who posted said info. Additionally, they’d need to make sure the posts are authentic and not merely pranks.
Why Social Media Plays an Important Role in Law Enforcement
Police have been looking for evidence of gang-related activity on social media. On sites such as Facebook, suspects have been posting photos of themselves brandishing firearms and gesturing gang signs. Authorities have made open calls to law-abiding citizens across social media platforms for help in tracking criminal users.
In Aiken, South Carolina, the County Sheriff’s office and the Department of Public Safety are both active on Facebook and Twitter. They are using social media platforms in a variety of ways — from lead gathering and outreach to crime solving and prevention. With over 4,500 likes on their respective Facebook pages, both departments are able to share and receive info on breaking cases with followers, who, in turn, spread the news.
Many police departments in large cities around the country are also turning to social media. In Dallas, Texas, the Dallas Police Department boasts 352,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 215,000 Facebook likes. Even in a city home to more than 1.3 million people, social media makes it possible for people in law enforcement to interact with the public.
This stands in marked contrast to before when law officers had to turn to newspapers, radio, and television to announce breaking stories and gain new leads. At the same time, social media platforms make it easier for criminal justice departments to share info with the standard news outlets.
In addition to sharing info and tracking illegal activities, social media can also improve the public perception of law enforcement. Platforms such as Facebook allow police departments to show off a more personable side, such as officers helping out at community events.
The 2016 Urban Institute and IACP study also revealed the top three reasons police agencies use social media include:
- Reaching out to the public about safety concerns (91 percent)
- Engaging citizens/community outreach (89 percent)
- Reputation management/public relations and notifying the public about non-criminal issues, like traffic (86 percent)
Guilty Users Give Themselves Away
For those in law enforcement, one of the most clear-cut advantages of social media is how criminals use the platforms. Many are rather candid about their exploits when sharing info online. Some will go so far as to brag in detail about illegal activities, such as burglary, theft, vandalism, and other more brutal crimes.
Criminals assume that info won’t leak outside their inner circle if their accounts are set to private. Investigators, however, can easily produce warrants to obtain such info. This is often the case in crimes that unravel due to online indiscretions.
For example, police used Facebook to bring the killer of 31-year-old Suffolk, Virginia, woman Katrina Jones to justice in 2012. On a page titled “Catch Katrina’s Killer,” users submitted tips that led to the capture of Larry Nicholas O’Neal. He ultimately pled guilty to the strangling and is now serving a 35-year sentence.
Another example is the case surrounding the 2009 death of Virginia Beach, Virginia, toddler Lakeria Calahan. A private exchange on Facebook turned out to be a smoking gun for investigators. Two years had passed since the 11-month-old girl’s uncle had pled guilty to child neglect and been sentenced, and the case seemed all but closed.
Then, from out of the blue, Child Protective Services were handed messages sent via Facebook. Julie Calahan, the girl’s mother, had sent them to a friend.
In these messages, the 23-year-old confessed that she had inflicted injuries on her daughter that ultimately led to the girl’s death later the same day. These messages were forwarded to a detective in Virginia Beach and the case was reopened. The mother was tried, found guilty, and ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Social Media — Evidence Alone or Means for Finding Supporting Facts?
The Calahan case exemplifies a growing trend in which private, incriminating Facebook and Twitter exchanges leak straight into the hands of the law. Virginia Beach attorneys have even said that most of today’s cases use evidence gathered from social platforms.
Investigators generally use this info to track down other more traditional forms of evidence. Examples like the Calahan case — in which prosecutors primarily relied on evidence from social media — are still a rarity in the criminal justice system.
Nonetheless, social media content has directly resulted in a slew of convictions for the worst of all crimes. In 2009, a young Portsmouth murder defendant was convicted and sentenced to 25 years after jurors were shown a video he had posted to his YouTube account. In it, he rapped about murderous violence and grieving mothers. Prosecutors used this as evidence that the defendant had openly bragged about killing his victim.
In 2010, evidence gathered from social media led to a new precedent in criminal justice. It all stemmed from the case of a 25-year-old Virginia Beach man. He was convicted of threatening his girlfriend’s life in lyrics posted to his MySpace page. He appealed his conviction, but it was ultimately upheld in the state Court of Appeals. The Court ruled that threats via social media can be prosecuted under a 1998 law that criminalizes threats in electronic form.
In 2013, police in Ohio used social media to secure justice in the Steubenville rape case. A trail of incriminating evidence was found across Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. This evidence ultimately pointed investigators to two high school football players. As a result, the two minors were found guilty in juvenile court. Without the pile of photos, tweets, and videos that exposed the joking attitude of the two perpetrators, the case might have gone unsolved.
With the help of Pinterest, authorities in California managed to get a family heirloom returned to its original owners, three decades after it was stolen in a household burglary. The engraved heirloom was rightfully claimed less than 10 hours after police placed its photo on the popular pinning board. Police first recovered the keepsake — along with tons of other stolen jewelry items — in a motorist’s vehicle during a pullover.
Social Media in Civil and Domestic Cases
Personal disclosures on social media can also have an impact on domestic cases. In one Virginia Beach custody case, a child’s father portrayed his wife as an unfit mother by pointing to her Facebook photo album. The album contained photos that showed her dressed in revealing club attire with drinks in hand.
Photos posted to social media have also revealed fake insurance claims. Users overstated or outright fabricated a personal injury.
For instance, a plaintiff sues a grocery chain for negligence. He claims he broke his hip after slipping on a banana. The attorney for the chain could sink his case simply by presenting Facebook photos that show the employee skiing, surfing, dancing, or playing sports.
Facebook has also been used to catch probation violators. According to the American Probation and Parole Association, social media is an excellent supervision tool to keep track of things like criminal behavior, substance abuse, unauthorized leave, criminal or gang associations, sex offender management and any other non-compliance.
In July 2014, the Police Department of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, set up a “wanted” page on the social media network. It features photos and personal info of people from the area who are wanted by the police.
One such person was 28-year-old probation violator Roger Ray Ireland. He actually had the audacity to brag about his flight on the Department’s page.
Soon enough, commenters drew Ireland’s family members into a tagging web, which prompted a more profane taunt from the wanted man. Within a day, a combination of Facebook leads and other tips led to Ireland’s arrest in Baltimore.
Victims Strike Back via Social Media
To fully understand how social media is used in criminal justice, we need to take a look at how victims are using the platforms, too. For victims of theft, YouTube has become an invaluable tool for catching criminals.
In August 2014, a McKinney, Texas, man used the video platform to post home surveillance footage of an overnight burglary of his vehicle. The video showed two teenage boys opening his car and making off with stolen cash and credit cards.
Two days after the video was made public, it had drawn nearly 4,000 views. Since the two boys were clearly displayed in the footage, local viewers quickly identified the pair. They have since been tied to other burglaries in the area.
The trend has also picked up steam across the pond. In the summer of 2013, a pair of thieves from Salford, England, was captured after posting pictures of themselves with stolen items on Facebook. The items — which included high-end vehicles and motorbikes — were stolen during a string of burglaries in the upper-class neighborhoods of Manchester from November 2012 to June 2013.
It all ended when one of the victims identified his stolen motorbike on their Facebook page. Police were then notified of the page, where they were able to download all the evidence needed to convict repeat-offenders Jonathan Dougan (26) and Matthew Murphy (23). Both were sentenced to more than nine years in prison.
Courtroom Controversies Over Social Media
[INSERT PHOTO 5] Certain branches of the criminal justice system are having limits drawn on their social media activities. In 2012, a Virginia Supreme Court committee disallowed jurors from talking about pending litigation on social media, because such activity has led to mistrials in other states.
Furthermore, the Virginia State Bar forbids lawyers from using legal aides to contact opposing litigants via Facebook. Consequently, social media has become one of the most frequently discussed topics in the legal community.
According to defense attorneys, preventing potentially bias-forming pre-trial publicity is now more difficult than ever. Publicity has long been a matter of contention among those arguing for fairness in the courtroom. With social media, the issue is growing.
One case that has drawn criticism in this regard is an Alabama child-sex trial involving a family of defendants. Critics allege that online bias towards key defendant Wendy Wood Holland could compromise her shot at a fair trial.
The case opened in June 2012 after Holland’s daughter, Brittany Wood, disappeared on the night she was supposed to be picked up by her uncle, Donald Holland. He was another alleged sex offender who killed himself as news broke.
Presumed dead, Wood has been the subject of several Facebook tribute pages — a phenomenon that Holland’s attorney, Mitzi Johnson-Theodoro, believes could prejudice her client’s case. Due largely to social media activity, the attorney has asked for the trial to be relocated. She also said that during the jury selection process, a candidate will be disqualified during the interview stage if he or she admits to having viewed the Facebook pages.
University of Alabama School of Law professor Steve Emens points to the problem of pre-trial social media exposure as one of the most challenging issues facing today’s legal justice system. While independent research has always been prohibited among jurors, Emens insists that social platforms have enabled such activity like never before. He further asserts that any juror overheard talking about case-related gossip on Facebook or Twitter should be reported to the judge.
Mistrials could be a consequence of this problem. Drawing from a Thomson Reuters study, Tucson, Arizona, attorney Rosalind Green has stated that online leaks between 1999 and 2010 resulted in 90 appealed verdicts, 28 of which were overturned. Half of these appeals occurred as Facebook and Twitter rose to universal prominence during 2009 and 2010.
Learn About Criminal Justice
The role of social media in the field of criminal justice is growing increasingly more important with each passing year. For the crime fighters of tomorrow, proficiency in social platforms will be essential.
At Vista College, students are getting prepared for the updated demands of this field in our Associate of Applied Science in Criminal Justice program. Covering areas including law enforcement, legal procedure, and court systems, the program trains students in the various facets of criminal justice.
If you are interested in entering the field of criminal justice, contact a Vista College Admission Representative to learn more about our AAS program.