Not just your space

Published 7:14 pm Friday, July 10, 2009

In the days of technology, communication has reached far beyond a simple visit from a neighbor or a friendly phone call.

Sending “tweets,” updating Facebook statuses, posting pictures to MySpace and watching YouTube videos may be language foreign to some. But, even many of the less “youthful” have found a niche in the ways of social networking.

Rather than calling to find a friend’s whereabouts, people may find it easier to just check on a Facebook page. And missing out on a party might not be so bad when snapshots make a debut on MySpace just a few hours later.

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But, what appears on these public forums may have more of a place than just staying connected — they are beginning to make it to the courtroom.

Technology may be growing faster still, but prosecution and defense attorneys alike have started to catch up with the trends.

“As more and more users create accounts, the opportunity for law enforcement increases,” said Pike County Assistant District Attorney Tom Anderson.

Anderson said the district attorney’s office probably has at least one case a month where some type of evidence is pulled from the World Wide Web.

“A lot of the time domestic violence and assault cases can be seen on MySpace and Facebook,” Anderson said.

This can also hold true for harassment situations.

“If we hear about it or law enforcement see it, we can subpoena certain information from those computers,” Anderson said.

Since those Web sites are public forums, Anderson said subpoenas don’t always have to be issued to obtain evidence.

“Sometimes we’ll have to subpoena to get the computer to show it tied to the name through a certain Internet provider,” Anderson said.

But using evidence from pictures posted doesn’t require any type of formal process.

“If you’re using photographic evidence, you can have it printed out,” Anderson said.

Anderson said probably the most frequent types of cases these are used is drug investigations.

“So far, it seems to me we’ve been able to use it in more drug cases,” Anderson said. “It’s surprising what people put on Facebook and MySpace.”

Other local attorneys are evolving with the trend.

Matt Baker, attorney with Cevera, Ralph & Reeves who has been practicing law for the last seven years, said it’s only been in these last two such evidence has come into play.

But, he said for just about any type of incident this evidence could prove to be a useful aid.

“I’ve seen it used on criminal cases in court to prove or disprove a relationship status between people,” Baker said. “It could be used in rape cases or sexual misconduct cases.”

And aside from these, Baker said he has also used evidence in civil matters.

“I had a divorce case where I used pictures posted on MySpace to show a woman wasn’t exactly telling the truth,” Baker said.

Baker said he has also taken transcripts of instant messenger conversations to trial.

Other times attorneys or law enforcement officials will use these sites simply to investigate crimes, though the evidence may not make it to the courtroom.

“I’m not aware of law enforcement agencies just searching people’s sites,” Anderson said. “It’s used to supplement their own tools in investigations.”

Another local attorney has used social networking to do a little investigation of his own.

“I have done it, but I have not gotten to the point where I have tried to use it in a trial,” said Joel Lee Williams, who has been practicing law for 29 years. “I have a case now where one of the parties has accused my client of something, and we have on YouTube an actual video of the accuser committing a similar act himself.”

Actually trying to use the video in court could get a little tricky, Williams said.

“With new developments and electronic communications, we’re now trying to see how those old or ancient rules are going to fit around new circumstances,” Williams said. “Advances in technology are far ahead of advances in law, so we’ll be making new law. The first time someone offers it in court, the judge won’t necessarily have guidance on how to treat it…therefore we establish precedence for how it would be treated in the future.”

Williams said the trend may eventually become a more prevalent part of court cases, but his office, at least, will likely use these social networking tools as a way to collect evidence for trial.