Use of Social Media in Criminal Investigations

May 21, 2014

Facebook privacyThe use of social media is pervasive in law enforcement, as it is in nearly every aspect of American life.  A 2013 survey of approximately 500 law enforcement agencies conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 80 percent of the agencies used social media in criminal investigations.  These tactics are chosen for good reason: social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, are treasure troves of evidence and investigatory leads.  Today, it is estimated that 91 percent of adults who are on-line use social media websites.  Criminal offenders are no exception.

Facebook photos lead to arrest

Last month, a series of Facebook posts led to the arrest of a suspect who is alleged to have killed a 17-year-old during a double shooting that took place in New Haven Connecticut.  Investigators followed a tip on Facebook, which led them to find photos of the suspect posing with a gun and bragging about defending his group of friends.  Based partially on this evidence, police arrested an 18-year-old know as “Nephew Jeff” or “Neph” and charged him with the murder of 17-year-old Taijhon Washington.  Police allege that Neph shot Taijhon and his 16-year-old brother Travon Washington.  According to the arrest warrant affidavit, Neph was involved in a gang-related dispute with the Washington brothers.  After examining Neph’s Facebook page, police discovered evidence that inculpated Neph and another teen in the murder.  According to the affidavit, Neph posted the words “I go crazzy for my sqqquuuaaddddd I go crazzy for my strip,” immediately after the shooting.  Neph also posted pictures of a gun, which appeared to be consistent with the type and caliber of gun that was used to shoot the Washington brothers.

A treasure trove of information

The extensive use of social media by criminal suspects has changed the landscape of criminal investigations.  In my own experience as a criminal prosecutor, I found that suspects routinely post incriminating personal information on-line including:  photos of weapons, contraband, and other evidence, lists of associates, and comments that can reveal critical information such as motive and the suspect’s location.  Some of this information might be directly incriminating, such as video footage of the suspect confessing (or bragging) about committing a crime.  Other times, the information might simply provide investigatory leads or help investigators reach the threshold of probable cause so that they can then obtain a warrant for more intrusive searches.  While the social media posts of criminal suspects may not have been intended for the police, it is all publicly available.  The police can access the information freely, without obtaining a warrant.  This represents a very significant change from the past.  In their initial investigations, police were once limited to the evidence that they could glean from crime-scenes and the voluntary statements of suspects.  Predictably, most criminal suspects try to conceal incriminatory evidence when they are aware that the information will be available to police.  In the context of social media however, suspects tend to be much less cautious.  Today, suspects post a wealth of incriminating information on-line knowing, and perhaps hoping, that large numbers of people will see it.  The suspects apparently do not consider the possibility that police will almost certainly be a part of that on-line audience.