Several prior posts on this blog have addressed authenticating and admitting digital evidence like social media posts and text messages (see here, here, here, and here) and we’ve also previously covered the basic rules and requirements for using the business records hearsay exception (see here, here and here), but we’ve not yet explored the questions and issues that arise when those two topics collide.
For example, if the state obtains a complete copy of a suspect’s account records from Facebook, Twitter, or AT&T, including user-generated content such as messages, chats, texts, and posts, can that evidence be admitted as a business record? I recently had an opportunity to talk about digital evidence with prosecutors in several other states, and there are opposing views in different jurisdictions about the correct answer to this question. This post looks at the conflicting interpretations, the North Carolina guidance we have so far, and an interesting alternative approach.
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Let’s start with a brainteaser:
If there are no North Carolina criminal appellate cases citing to Rules of Evidence 803(7) or 803(10), does that prove that the rules are never used?
If you know your rules of evidence, then you get it. (You’re probably not that amused… but you get it.) If you need a quick refresher on these two rules, or an explanation of why it would be surprising that there are virtually no criminal appellate cases mentioning either of them, read on.
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A few weeks ago I participated in a seminar on digital evidence, and one of the topics we discussed was cell phone records (subscriber information, call detail records, historical location data, etc.). That’s not surprising, since the widespread use of cell phones has made these records an increasingly common and important tool in criminal cases. Location data can help prove that the defendant was in the victim’s house at the time of the murder, call logs can help prove the co-conspirators were in regular contact with each other, and so on.
What did surprise me was when I asked a group of 75+ prosecutors how often they have used an affidavit to authenticate these kinds of records and get them admitted into evidence, without the need for live testimony by a witness from the company? Only one prosecutor had ever done so, and that was in a case with a pro se defendant. There seemed to be a lot of confusion about (i) whether this was even possible, (ii) old rules vs. new rules, and (iii) state court vs. federal court, so I thought this post would be a good opportunity to help clear things up. Continue reading →