I’m happy to announce that my book on digital evidence is now available. There are five chapters, covering (1) search warrants for digital devices, (2) warrantless searches of digital devices, (3) law enforcement access to electronic communications, (4) tracking devices, and (5) the admissibility of electronic evidence. Continue reading
Tag Archives: electronic evidence
Book on Digital Evidence Now Available
Admissibility of Electronic Writings: Emails, Text Messages, and Social Networking Posts
It is conference season again at the School of Government, which means that we are doing a lot of presentations for a lot of different groups in the court system. It also means that to get ready we have to learn about new areas of law or at least areas of law we had not closely considered before, which is one of the great pleasures of working here. I was asked by public defenders and private assigned counsel to look at the admissibility in criminal cases of electronic writings such as emails, text messages, and web postings. You can read the handout I prepared on the subject here, which addresses the principal issues I saw. For example, how does the proponent of an email message authenticate that the message came from the person who purportedly sent it? Does the proponent have to produce the original of the email message and, if so, what constitutes an “original”? New forms of communication have thrown the courts (as well as this writer) a few curves, but ultimately the answers involve the application of traditional evidence principles.
If you would like to read more about searches of electronic devices, you can see Jeff’s recent postings here (searches without a warrant) and here (searches with a warrant).
Regular readers know that I have a particular interest in the intersection of new technologies and criminal law. But I am not the only person at the School of Government interested in this topic. My colleague Cheryl Howell recently taught a session on electronic evidence — essentially, how the rules of evidence apply to things like text messages, blog posts, and documents seized from computers.
If you’ve ever wondered “how do I authenticate this text message?” or “is this printout of an email really the ‘best evidence’ of the contents of the email?” you should check out Cheryl’s materials. (If you haven’t ever though about those questions, Cheryl’s materials will help you start.) Here is her brief outline of the issues, complete with case citations. Here is a set of discussion questions and answers that she prepared.
If that isn’t enough to quench your thirst for knowledge, the cyb3rcrim3 blog (goofy spelling theirs, not mine) has a post today on the authentication of blog posts. Here’s hoping none of my posts ever need to be authenticated.
As I mentioned last week, I have a new publication entitled Prosecution and Law Enforcement Access to Information about Electronic Communications. It’s meant to be useful on a range of topics, from phone records and wiretapping, but the most detailed discussion concerns email, text messages, and other stored electronic communications. The very, very simplified version of that section of the paper is that the state can access that type of evidence with a search warrant, and perhaps, in some cases, by other means. In my post announcing the paper, I promised to write about defense access to stored electronic communications, a topic not addressed in the publication. Here I am, making good.
Let’s take a specific example. How, if at all, may a defendant charged with rape access emails that the complainant sent from her Yahoo! email account to a friend, where there is reason to believe that (1) the emails remain on Yahoo!’s servers and (2) the emails may be exculpatory, because they may suggest that the encounter was consensual? (Remember, if the state were seeking the defendant’s incriminating emails to his brother, it could obtain them with a search warrant directed at the defendant’s email service provider, or maybe even with lesser process.)
The short answer is, the defendant can’t access the emails.
Of course, if the complainant still has access to the emails, the defendant can subpoena them from her. But if she doesn’t — for example, if she’s deleted them — or if she isn’t forthcoming with them, the defendant probably can’t obtain the emails from Yahoo!. Under 18 U.S.C. § 2702, most communications service providers, “shall not divulge . . . the contents of” electronic communications except in specified circumstances. None of the enumerated circumstances apply to the defendant’s situation; there is no general exception for compliance with subpoenas or court orders, which are the types of instruments that the defendant would normally employ in pursuing evidence. By contrast, 18 U.S.C. § 2703 provides for compulsory disclosure to “governmental entit[ies]” with appropriate process.
A number of courts have held that the specific nondisclosure command of the statute trumps instruments like subpoenas and court orders, and simply doesn’t allow criminal defendants (or private civil litigants, for that matter) to access stored email from service providers. Apparently, most email providers are, understandably, following these cases and are refusing to produce stored emails in response to defendants’ subpoenas and court orders. A good collection of cases on point appears in Thayer v. Chiczewski, 2009 WL 2957317 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 11, 2009), while a case applying the law to bar a criminal defendant from compelling a service provider to give him his own stored email is United States v. Amawi, 552 F.Supp.2d 679 (N.D. Ohio 2008). A useful law review article discussing this issue is Marc J. Zwilliger & Christian S. Genetski, Criminal Discovery of Internet Communications . . ., 97 J. Crim. Law & Criminology 569 (2007), available online here. (That makes two useful law review articles I’ve seen this year, counting this one.)
There are a couple of possible avenues of recourse for our hypothetical defendant. First, because an email provider can produce stored communications with the consent of the account holder, our defendant could try to convince the complainant to consent. Or, he could try to get a court to order her to consent. (There’s a robust debate in the cases about the propriety of that, which I won’t summarize here, but it may be worth a try.) Next, he could try to persuade the prosecution to obtain the email on his behalf. Finally, he could try to argue that the federal statutes are unconstitutional, perhaps on due process grounds, to the extent that they put a class of evidence completely off-limits to him — especially a class of evidence that the prosecution can access. There might be something to that argument, though there aren’t any reported decisions on point, presumably because, to date, defendants have been able to get by using the other methods suggested above.
I’m keen to hear about real-world experiences with this issue. As always, feel free to post a comment or to contact me off-blog.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m especially interested in the law regarding electronic communications and electronic evidence. (For one thing, it allows me to look at web sites like Gizmodo and claim that I’m working.) I’ve previously published a paper on law enforcement use of GPS tracking devices, as well as several blog posts about electronic evidence.
My latest foray into the field is this Administration of Justice Bulletin, entitled Prosecution and Law Enforcement Access to Information about Electronic Communications. It’s a primer about everything from phone records to email to wiretapping, and it’s meant to be useful to prosecutors, officers, defense attorneys, and judges. The law in this area is incredibly complicated, and my sense is that there’s a need for a basic resource. I plan to update the bulletin from time to time, so your feedback would be much appreciated.
I’m also planning to write a blog post about the flip side of the coin: defense access to information about electronic communications. Look for that in the next week or two. Finally, my colleague Kara Millonzi has recently published this paper on electronic discovery in civil cases. It’s of particular relevance to folks involved in quasi-criminal cases, like post-conviction litigation, but it has some nuggets that might be of interest to “regular” criminal lawyers, too.