In my last post, I wrote about how a party might authenticate a Facebook direct message or other text-based electronic communication. That post focused on how the proponent of the evidence might establish who wrote the message, i.e., authorship. But what if a party wants to introduce a photograph that was posted on a social media platform? The concept of authorship doesn’t really apply, and in the age of Photoshop and AI-generated images, courts may have serious concerns about the accuracy of online images.
Suppose that a defendant is charged with possessing fentanyl with the intent to sell it. The state’s evidence includes a Facebook direct message, purportedly from the defendant to an informant, saying “just got some China Girl, you want any?” An officer took a photograph of the direct message as it appeared on the informant’s smartphone, and everyone is satisfied that the photograph fairly and accurately depicts the message. But the defendant objects to the introduction of the message on the grounds that there’s no way to be sure that he wrote it. How might the state respond?
Nearly half of the 7.7 billion people in the world are on social media, and each of those users has an average of 8 different accounts. The rate is even higher in the U.S., with around 70% of the population active on social media for an average of 2 hours every day. You can find more jaw-dropping statistics here.
Given these trends, it’s no surprise that social media evidence is showing up more frequently in criminal cases. A quick search for criminal cases mentioning the most common social media platforms brought up well over 100 North Carolina cases decided in the last decade, but only a few of those cases have directly analyzed the authentication requirements for this type of evidence. The Court of Appeals recent decision in State v. Clemons, __ N.C. App. __ (Dec. 1, 2020) provides some additional guidance in this important area.
My colleagues and predecessors here at the School of Government have written about video evidence many times over the years, summarizing the basic rules and significant cases in posts available here, here, here, here, and here.
Recently, though, I’ve been getting questions about a relatively new but increasingly common type of video evidence: high-tech, app-controlled, and remotely stored videos taken by automated devices ranging from doorbell cameras to wifi-enabled, cloud-connected, teddy bear spy cams. Do the old rules still work the same way for these new video tools? Is it substantive or illustrative evidence? If it’s substantive, how is it authenticated? Is a lay witness qualified to testify about how these cameras work? Does the proponent need the original video? Come to think of it, what is the “original” of a video that exists only as bits of data floating somewhere in the cloud…?
After Roshawn Thompson picked up his cousin Kendall Rascoe from the Greenville mall in November 2014, Thompson and a friend, Andre Grey, robbed Rascoe at gunpoint. At Thompson’s armed robbery trial, his defense attorney sought to cross examine Rascoe about Facebook messages he sent to Thompson earlier in the day asking whether Thompson could get some marijuana for him while he was in Greenville. Rascoe denied sending the message and testified that he just happened to run into Thompson at the mall. The State objected to the admission of the screenshot of the messages.
Later in the trial, the State sought to introduce a screenshot of a picture of Thompson and Grey copied from Thompson’s Facebook page. Rascoe showed the investigating detective the picture for purposes of identifying Thompson and Grey. Thompson objected to the admission of the screenshot, in which both of his middle fingers were extended.
How did the trial court rule? Did it make the right call?
Technologists tell us that we are in the age of ubiquitous video. It seems that almost everything is being recorded. Naturally, this means that more and more video recordings are being introduced in court. A recent decision by the court of appeals is a helpful reminder of the two primary methods of authenticating video.
The Supreme Court of North Carolina just decided State v. Snead, a case about the authentication of surveillance video. The court adopted a more relaxed approach to authentication than the court of appeals had taken. Because the authentication of video is an increasingly common issue, it is worth digging into the case.
The court of appeals recently decided State v. Ford, a case about the authentication of social media evidence. This is the first North Carolina appellate case to give careful consideration to the issue, and the opinion sets a relatively low bar for authentication. Because this type of evidence is increasingly prevalent, the case is an important one.
More and more criminal cases involve video evidence, whether from patrol car dash cameras, store surveillance cameras, witness cell phone cameras, or, in the near future, wearable cameras. It’s important to know the authentication requirements for such evidence. A recent court of appeals case sets a high bar for admissibility.
One of my all-time favorite emails was received from a prosecutor who was handling a drug trafficking case. The email included a picture, plucked from what purported to be the defendant’s Facebook page, showing the defendant sitting on a pile of cash (later determined to be $1.6 million!), holding an AK-47. Jeff has written (here) about authenticating photographs from social media sites. But what of the other evidence that is mined from social media—how is that authenticated? A recent Second Circuit case adheres to the line that the relevant standard isn’t particularly high but finds that the prosecution didn’t meet it in this case.