Authentication Of Social Media; No Easy Matter

by Fox Rothschild LLP
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In a published decision reported on March 15, 2018, the Superior Court has addressed what it takes, at least in a criminal setting, to tie a Facebook posting to a defendant charged with a serious crime.

Tyler Mangel and Matthew Craft were charged with assault in Erie County.  In the course of the prosecution, the Commonwealth filed to secure Facebook subscriber information.  That motion was granted and at trial, the prosecution filed a motion to introduce information obtained from Facebook, which it saw as probative of guilt.  The evidence consisted of screenshots and mobile device “chats.”

When the police officer testifying about the investigation was asked what clues found in the chats could be traced to Defendant Mangel’s Facebook account, the defense counsel objected. The Trial Judge then posed this question to the witness asking whether the officer, with a reasonable degree of certainty could testify that the Defendant published these electronic statements.  When the witness testified that the account was registered in the Defendant’s name, the Court sustained the objection on the basis that ownership of a social media account could not be equated with responsibility for all publications made on that account.  The Commonwealth appealed.

Defense counsel ably created “issues” for the prosecution.  The investigating officer did not secure an IP address for the account she was testifying about.  This would have provided background about the computer, network and location of the computer at the time of the post.

Mangel is not the first foray into this evidentiary minefield.  Instant messages and cell phone text communications were the subject of In the Interest of F.P. a minor, 878 A.2d 91,96 (Pa. Super. 2005).  In October 2011, we wrote about Com. v. Koch, 39 A.3d 996, 1005 (Pa. Super. 2011) aff’d 39 A.3d 705(Pa. 2014).  In 2016, the Third Circuit ruled that Facebook authentication required a preponderance of evidence.  United States v. Browne, 834 F.3d 403 (3d Cir. 2016).

Judge Stevens sum up the problems of authentication as the same with all electronic media; “anybody with the right password” can become someone they are not and send messages pretending to be the account holder. The proponent of social media has the burden to corroborate the message with the alleged messenger, by either direct admission or contextual clues confirming the identity of the sender.  In support of this need for “supporting evidence” aside from mere ownership of the account, the Court referred to U.S. v. Vayner, 769 F.3d 125,131 (2nd Cir. 2014); U.S. v. Jackson 208 F.3d 633,636 (7th Cir. 2000); Griffin v. State 19 A.3d 415,423 (Md. 2011); Com. v. Purdy, 945 N.E.2d 372, 381 (Mass. 2011); Smith v. State, 136 So. 3d 424, 434 (Miss. 2014); and, Deering v. State, 465 S.W. 3d 668, 672 (Tex 2015).

In this case, the defendant did not admit the Facebook account was his or admit to making the posts.  The fact that the name, hometown, school district and photos posted seemed to correspond to the Defendant was insufficient.  The fact that there was another Facebook account for “Tyler Mangel” in the Defendant’s hometown only added to the certainty of keeping the electronic evidence away from the jury and showed that the police were wrong in offering that there was only one person with such an account in the Defendant’s hometown.  The timing of the postings was also missing from the record.  Moreover, there was nothing distinctive about the posts, which would suggest the “signature” of Mr. Mangel, the Defendant.

This is a criminal case and one may argue that a civil case might be decided differently.  But the Rules of Evidence governing authentication do not vary from criminal to civil, meaning that electronic evidence needs to be considered more carefully than trial lawyers might otherwise want to think.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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