You already know that social media has changed the way we communicate. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the other social media platforms allow us to look up old friends, share pictures and videos, and market our businesses.

You also probably know that elected officials, government agencies, and police departments use social media to provide information directly to their constituents and to stay in touch with public opinion.

What you may not know, however, is that police agencies and prosecutors are routinely scrutinizing social media sites for evidence of criminal activity and evidence that can be used against defendants in court.

You’ll learn how social media evidence is handled by the police and the courts, how important social media evidence can be in a criminal case, and what you should do if you are charged with a crime because of something you posted to a social media site.

WHAT KIND OF EVIDENCE DO THE POLICE LOOK FOR ONLINE?

What you post online could make the difference between a conviction and an acquittal.

It’s hard to believe, but people who are planning a crime frequently share that plan on social media, and people who have committed a crime frequently brag about it on social media.

If you are charged with a crime in southern California on the basis of something that you posted on social media, you must contact a criminal defense attorney at once for the legal advice and representation that you are very much going to need.

Information obtained through social media is used extensively in criminal trials in California and across the country. The kind of evidence and information that law enforcement officers and prosecutors are looking for on social media includes:

1. photos or videos that provide evidence about a crime or a criminal suspect
2. activity that reveals a suspect’s location at the time of an alleged crime
3. statuses or updates that provide current information regarding a suspect

CAN A POLICE OFFICER CONTACT YOU PERSONALLY ONLINE?

Law enforcement also uses Twitter and Facebook information found on the pages of a suspect’s friends and associates. Police officers have even “friended” suspects on Facebook to obtain additional evidence.

In 2011, the New York Police Department established a “social media” unit, and in 2013, the Los Angeles Police Department approved guidelines that vastly expanded the department’s use of social media to investigate crimes.

Business Insider in 2013 published an article with the headline, “Cops Are Creating Totally Bogus Facebook Profiles Just So They Can Arrest People.”

While that headline may be exaggerated, the fact is that law enforcement officers do sometimes “go undercover” and create fake profiles on Facebook and Twitter.

HAVE ONLINE “UNDERCOVER” POLICE OPERATIONS BEEN SUCCESSFUL?

In 2012, fourteen members of a Brooklyn street gang responsible for a year-long burglary wave were apprehended after several gang members accepted friend requests from an NYPD officer on Facebook.

The New York Times has even reported that NYPD officers have created entirely fictional personal profiles using photos of attractive young women to get male suspects to accept them as friends on Facebook.

Creating fictional online profiles is a practice that has helped a number of police departments break theft rings and identify sexual predators. In most cases, the courts have approved these online undercover investigations.

WHAT DO THE LEGAL EXPERTS SAY ABOUT ONLINE POLICE WORK?

However, legal concerns have emerged regarding police investigations into the private lives of individuals through their social media accounts when those persons have not been charged with a crime and should be presumed innocent.

Joseph Giacolone, a retired NYPD detective and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, says that “undercover” social media accounts violate the terms of Facebook and Twitter, but they are not illegal.

“It’s no different than running an undercover operation, or a buy and bust,” Giacolone says.

HOW HAVE THE SOCIAL MEDIA COMPANIES RESPONDED?

In recent years, social media companies have acted to delete accounts and to deny access if they believe that their terms of service have been violated.

In 2016, for example, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram partially denied access to Geofeedia, a social media monitoring company, after Geofeedia tracked members of Black Lives Matter and compiled data about the group on behalf of clients who were law enforcement agencies.

Two other online monitoring firms, Media Sonar and Snap Trends, partially lost their access to Twitter for conducting comparable surveillance activities.

DO THE POLICE HAVE GUIDELINES FOR ONLINE INVESTIGATIONS?

Police departments in the nation’s largest cities – New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – have been working online for years, and those departments have evolved and established guidelines for online investigations.

But surveys suggest that the overwhelming majority of police agencies have no clear guidelines regarding online investigations, and individual officers often operate online using their own discretion.

“So cops are working without a net, so to speak, and you are going to see lots of challenges on these things,” according to Joseph Giacolone at John Jay College.

COULD THE POLICE MISUSE DATA COMPILED FROM SOCIAL MEDIA?

Matt Cagle, speaking for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, says, “This new world of surveillance products shouldn’t give law enforcement a blank check to create undercover accounts and collect information on law-abiding people.”

Civil liberties advocates are warning social media users about concerns regarding how social media data is used and stored by law enforcement agencies.

The NYPD, for example, analyzes millions of social media posts, and they’ve used that data to identify “trends” and justify raids at street gang hangouts and at gang members’ homes.

In Los Angeles, social media investigations are more reactive than proactive: officers go to Facebook and Twitter when they receive a tip about a crime. They comb through social media sites to find suspects and witnesses, identify victims, seek evidence, and generate leads.

Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Commander Andrew Smith says, “Most of the stuff, honestly, we get is when people send it to us.” The laws in states like Oklahoma are different, so a criminal defense attorney in Oklahoma may be able to help.

WHERE CAN YOU TURN IF THE POLICE CHARGE YOU WITH A CRIME?

The wise assumption to make is that everything you post or respond to on social media can be found and used against you. Nothing that is online is ever, really, “private.”

If you are charged with any felony or misdemeanor in southern California, stay away from social media entirely, and promptly put your case in the hands of an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney.

When your freedom and future are on the line, it’s imperative to have a good defense lawyer’s advice and representation – and it’s your right.