SAN DIEGO — These days, people use social media to publicize all sorts of personal information to their friends and family.
But it turns out that your ex-boyfriend and your lonely aunt in New Jersey aren’t the only people checking your tweets and Facebook posts. Detectives and prosecutors may be searching through your online profiles too.
Social media has become an integral part of criminal investigations and prosecutions throughout the County over the past decade, according to Deputy District Attorney David F. Williams and San Diego law enforcement officials.“Basically, (social media) is becoming a routine investigative tool that detectives are using to gather evidence in their case,” said Williams. “Any evidence that is obtained, I would potentially use that in the courtroom.”
By searching social media sites, including Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter, detectives and prosecutors are able to uncover a wide range of potential evidence, according to Williams.
He explained during a presentation at the SANDAG Public Safety Committee meeting on Dec. 14 that personal information online can reveal visible evidence within photos or videos, admissions of crimes on blogs or comment sections, associations between people, personal interests, and location information.
“These folks are not rocket scientists,” said Williams, referring to the criminals the DA’s office prosecutes. “Thankfully, we get a lot of very good material off of this. People post it without thinking, as, frankly, all of us may do.”
Such was the case of one Chula Vista man, who was bragging about his pimping ventures online.
“What this individual was doing was posting listings on Craigslist of women that he was exploiting, and then bragging about his exploits on his own MySpace account,” explained Williams.
When detectives were investigating the man, known as J. Green, for possible pimping charges in 2008, an Internet search led them to Green’s public MySpace account. According to Williams, Green’s online profile provided detectives not only with basic personal information, but a myriad of evidence of Green’s crimes.
At the SANDAG presentation, Williams showed one of Green’s Craigslist listings.
The ad was posted under Craigslist’s erotic services category in early 2008, and included a photo of a blonde woman posing with one hand on her hip and the other stroking a black Mercedes.
After the detectives obtained a search warrant, they were able to match the black Mercedes they found at Green’s home with the one shown in the photo on the Craigslist listing, said Williams.
The coup de gras for prosecuting Green, Williams said, was a photo of the defendant posted on MySpace wearing a white, fuzzy hat and describing himself as, “hella pimpish.”
“This is pretty good stuff for a jury,” Williams said.
With such blatant and often completely public evidence displayed online, detectives and prosecutors have seized Internet resources as investigative tools.
Currently four out of five law enforcement professionals in the U.S. use social media to assist in investigations, according to a 2012 nationwide survey of 1,200 federal, state, and local law enforcement officials.
The Carlsbad Police Department is among the local law enforcement agencies that uses social media in its criminal investigations.
The department has offered training opportunities about all popular social media platforms for its staff since MySpace became popular several years ago, according to Carlsbad’s Public Information Officer Jodee Sasway.
But like any other type of evidence, information that is gathered from social media by prosecutors or law enforcement is subject to strict legal regulations about how it can be gathered and presented in court, said Williams.
After searching through online information that is posted publicly, detectives obtain search warrants to search through private or locked online information, said Williams. Material that is found online is then verified using witnesses or other information uncovered during an investigation.
As the various social media platforms evolve, the County’s DA’s office and law enforcement officials offer regular training for their staff on how to find and use evidence online, according to Williams and other San Diego law enforcement officials.
Yet prosecutors are not the only ones using social media materials in court.
“It is not at all uncommon for cases where officers testify in court now, the defense attorneys will go to the officer’s Facebook and look to see if there is anything on there that they can use in the defense of their case,” said Chief William Lansdowne of the San Diego Police Department.
Because of this, the department’s policies aim to prevent police officers from posting material that would be embarrassing to the organization or potentially criminal online, he said.
Online information is all too often used for criminal activities as well, said Lansdowne.
“It’s also used by the criminals. People involved in domestic violence find the ex-wife using Facebook,” said Lansdowne.
“Social media can be a double-edged sword. And it’s nice for family and friends to be able to keep in contact and maintain relationships with you, but there is always a risk that your personal information may end up somewhere that you did not intend it to be,” Williams said.