Officials use Facebook/MySpace to Prosecute Criminal Cases

One of the Twitter posts I read last week referred me to an article on about law officials using the social network sites of Facebook and MySpace to obtain evidence from pictures and comments posted to the sites. The article mentioned a college student who was seen at a Halloween party two weeks after being arrested after being involved in a drunk driving accident. According to the article,

Two weeks after Joshua Lipton was charged in a drunken driving crash that seriously injured a woman, the 20-year-old college junior attended a Halloween party dressed as a prisoner. Pictures from the party showed him in a black-and-white striped shirt and an orange jumpsuit labeled “Jail Bird.”

Lipton was not showing much remorse partying after being involved in an alcohol related accident. While the woman Lipton hit was recovering in the hospital, Lipton was out partying and one of his friends posted pictures from the party that included Lipton on Facebook.

Source: Flickr*

I recently blogged about being aware of the digital footprints we leave on the internet citing a USTA professor as an example. His explicit emails with references to his students were made public and printed in the newspaper with this incident making front page news.

According to the article at, discussion of how law officials use the pictures of social networks to portray the nature of one’s character is becoming commonplace.

“Social networking sites are just another way that people say things or do things that come back and haunt them,” said Phil Malone, director of the cyberlaw clinic at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “The things that people say online or leave online are pretty permanent.”

The pictures, when shown at sentencing, not only embarrass defendants but can make it harder for them to convince a judge that they’re remorseful or that their drunken behavior was an aberration. (Of course, the sites are also valuable for defense lawyers looking to dig up dirt to undercut the credibility of a star prosecution witness.

Prosecutors do not appear to be scouring networking sites while preparing for every sentencing, even though telling photos of criminal defendants are sometimes available in plain sight and accessible under a person’s real name. But in cases where they’ve had reason to suspect incriminating pictures online, or have been tipped off to a particular person’s MySpace or Facebook page, the sites have yielded critical character evidence.

While teaching students how to perform boolean searches on the internet or cite sources, it is just as important to stress the awareness of the digital footprints each of us leaves behind. Hopefully the students will not have their digital footprints used as evidence against them in a criminal matter as the teens did in the article but examples such as these show the importance of being cognizant of one’s presence on the internet. Colleges and employers often do searches on the social networks and make decisions based on their findings. I believe emphasizing the concept of digital footprints is as important in preparing students for the 21st century as is internet safety to avoid predators, using technology tools and social networks. For some students, their digital footprint could make the difference between a sentence of life or death.

*Patiblue. “Pegasus/Footprint.” Patiblue’s Photostream. April 9. 2008. Sept. 20, 2005.

2 responses to “Officials use Facebook/MySpace to Prosecute Criminal Cases

  1. Kim-
    This a very thoughtful and, with links, a very informative post.
    My one caution is the 20th judicial and police procedure had better be aware of skillful photoshop-ing that can fix incriminating visual evidence.
    Thanks Again,

  2. Chantel Bernardini

    First off let me say I have longtime reader, first time commenter. I figured I should probably say thanks for posting this piece (and all your others), and I’ll be back!

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