13 INVESTIGATES: Social Media in court - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Social Media in court

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From Twitter's 500 million users, Facebook's 1.5 billion monthly users, to Instagram's 4 billion photos. Social media and social networking have become some of the top ways we communicate.

It's no wonder, what we "post," has found its way into courtrooms.

The most recent national example of that, the case of the two football players found guilty of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio.

National Sexual Resource Center, Tracy Cox said, "The public is outraged that these posts shouldn't have happened. They did happen, were here."

Prosecutors used social media, specifically emails and text messages, exchanged between the two players and the victim as evidence in the courtroom.

The judge found the two football players guilty and sentenced them to at least one year in a juvenile jail. They could potentially be held until their 21 years old.

Then after the guilty verdicts, two teenage girls were arrested charged with threatening the victim via social media.

Jefferson County, Ohio Sheriff, Fred Abdalla said, "I hope this sends a warning, and I could assure you, we've been monitoring Twitter for 24 hours, and continue. If there's anybody out there, crosses the line and makes a death threat, they're gonna have to face the consequences."

Samford's Cumberland School of Law, Dean John Carroll said, "Five years ago this wasn't a phenomenon, now, it's a huge phenomenon and the court system has to figure out how to deal with it."

At Samford's Cumberland School of Law, Dean John Carroll and his law students hosted a workshop on "social media in court." From the U.S. District court in Maryland, Judge Paul Grimm was the guest speaker.

U.S. District Court, Maryland, Judge Paul Grimm said, "When you have civil cases and criminal cases, where intent and motive are important, which is often the case, the evidence is going be on social media."

According to one Ohio University survey, social media sites are already making their mark in courtrooms.

Judges noted that along with social media sites, blogging, or a smart phone, tablet or notebook used by witnesses in the courtroom, in 2011 it was at 60% and in 2012 it was 63%.

And this is where some law enforcement, prosecutors and judges come to learn about social media and other new technology to use in their cases, the "National Computer Forensics Institute" in Hoover. Here, they work on finding social media evidence, and just like any other evidence presented in a courtroom, authenticating who it belongs to and when it was posted. 

Jefferson County, AL District Attorney, Brandon Falls said, "We have to have a witness that says this account belongs to this person and this is the digital evidence, this is what was happening at the time that was saved somewhere."

And if you think you've deleted incriminating evidence, think again. These folks are learning how to retrieve it.

Defense attorneys like Birmingham's Eric Guster said it's now a common occurrence defending against social media in the courtroom.

Defense Attorney, Eric Guster said, "It works on either side, because people are so loose with social media, they talk about everything. They brag about robbing banks and burglarizing houses, that the sheriff's department and any other law enforcement official can go on a social media website, whether, they're your friend or not and bring up all of your information."

Social media's role in the courtroom doesn't just stop at evidence. These days judges are also telling jurors, not to talk about cases in social media, that includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever."

At 60%, up 4.5 percent from 2010, more than half of judges continue to report routine juror instructions that include the use or non-use of social media during a trial. And social media is also being used in civil cases.

Guster said, "If a person states that they only make $25,000 a year, but you know on their Facebook page they went to this certain Nissan dealership and brought a new truck, you can actually subpoena the records from their finance contract, because that includes their income, and that can be admissible in court."

Maryland's Judge Grimm said social media in court is here to stay, as we've already seen in cases like the one in Steubenville.

Grimm said, "This evidence is never going to go away as long as it's being used it will find it's way into cases that are contract cases, employment cases, criminal cases, civil cases."

Grimm said, both lawyers and judges must take the steps to properly use social media as evidence because, according to Grimm, one thing's for sure, jurors know about it.

Now should attorneys ever ask for access to your social media, judges will typically only allow what's relevant to the criminal or civil case to be introduced into court as evidence.

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