by Eric Maloney, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
Facebook has become a part of everyday life for people around the world. According to Mark Zuckerberg and Co., over one billion people (yes, with a “B”) are active on Facebook every month, with an average of more than 600 million active users every day in December 2012. Disregarding bogus or duplicate accounts, that means roughly one-seventh of the entire human population is active on Facebook every month (with the world population currently sitting somewhere in the neighborhood of seven billion people).
Apparently, Facebook has become so commonplace and ingrained in the daily routine of some that they feel the need to use the social networking service from the privacy of their prison cells.
A Harlem gang member named Devin Parsons has decided to cooperate with the government against fellow members of his gang, and is currently incarcerated while trial is pending. Instead of having the usual prison contraband smuggled in, he obtained a mobile phone and used it to post Facebook status updates under an assumed name. According to Trial Judge William H. Pauley III:
In some posts, Parsons reflected on his life in jail:
“everybody wanna live but don’t wanna die”;
“Life is crazy thay only miss yu ifyu dead or in jail”; and
In others, Parsons posted about his cooperation:
“I’m not tellin on nobody from HARLEM but I can give up some bx n****s that got bodys”; and
“be home sooner then yaH hereing 101[.]”
While not exactly “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Parsons was surprisingly bold about disclosing the fact of his cooperation and about the risk of getting caught with a banned cell phone by the prison administration. The gang against which Parsons is testifying is charged with multiple counts of narcotics trafficking and murder, among other things.
One of the defendants in the case, Melvin Colon, sought to compel the disclosure of these postings under the Brady rule, which requires the government to release evidence to the defense before trial if the evidence is favorable to the defendant. Judge Pauley held that the government was not obligated to turn these postings over to Colon; for various reasons, the government was never in actual possession of the Facebook statuses and therefore had no duty to disclose under Brady.
This case highlights the continually growing relevance that Facebook and other social media data has in legal proceedings. In fact, this is not even the first ruling about Facebook in this case; the defendant Colon had earlier moved to suppress his own Facebook postings which the prosecution sought to introduce. Judge Pauley denied this motion as well, holding that Colon’s sharing of the postings with his Facebook “friends” meant he lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in them.
A background issue in this case was the idea of authenticity of the Facebook poster; because Parsons was posting under a fake name, both sides were unaware of his conduct until after the account had already been deactivated. While not contested here, ensuring that the Facebook information originated from the user is an increasingly important evidentiary consideration as more and more of this data is used in both civil and criminal contexts.
Professor Ira P. Robbins laid out a possible framework for authenticating social networking evidence in his Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology article “Writings on the Wall: The Need for an Authorship-Centric Approach to the Authentication of Social-Networking Evidence.” While voicing significant concerns about the current lack of a required nexus between the online content and its real-life poster, he proposed detailed admissions criteria for social network postings. He offered several factors to be examined by judges in making rulings about such data, including who owns the account, how secure the account is, and how / when the post in question was created.
As Facebook and other social networking information becomes increasingly important to the outcomes of legal cases, a framework like this is essential to bring our procedures in line with the nature of 21st century evidence and to ensure our system continues to meet Due Process standards. Digital evidence is largely unexplored territory for jurists and scholars alike, and it’s my hope that evidentiary standards like those proposed by Professor Robbins are seriously considered by the legal community.