Houston Criminal Defense Blog

Online Investigations and Social Media

social media arrest

In the past, police officers have had to obtain warrants in order to review an individual’s files and information, but this is not necessarily the case with social media sites. Law enforcement agencies may view profiles, chats, posts and other social media activity without a warrant in order to determine whether an individual is participating in criminal activity.

Is It Legal for Officers to Gain Information from the Internet?

Federal judges have stated that law enforcement officers do not need to receive a warrant in order to access information that has been shared with other people. When individuals post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media accounts, they are sharing information with their friends, followers and the public. This means that officers can access it without a warrant, although they may need a court order. With a court order, they can also access:

  • Emails
  • Text messages
  • Online documents from OverDrive, Google Docs and other storage sites

Law enforcement officers may also obtain information about IP addresses and cell phone locations to help them with criminal investigations.

How Do Officers Monitor Social Media Sites?

The digital age has changed how police officers conduct investigations. Undercover officers have created fake profiles on social media sites, including monitoring sites such as:

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • YouTube

By using a false identity, an officer can track posts, tweets, locations and images that may give officials the information they need in order to make an arrest. When officers monitor a suspect’s social media accounts, they may also get real-time information that will help them connect with former victims and future criminals. Officials may even ask friends and followers of a suspect to give them access to the suspect’s posts and information, which may provide them with incriminating evidence that they would otherwise be unable to view.

Officers also use software programs that scan for keywords to identify individuals whom they believe should be monitored.

Is It Ethical?

While the Supreme Court has not made a ruling on how police officers should obtain information from social media sites, some police departments have created policies covering online aliases and social media monitoring. In New York City, the officers must register their aliases with the department and use department laptops. While most social media sites have terms that discourage fake profiles, the practice is not illegal. Many officers even consider it to be ethical. Read about judgment against the DEA using fake Facebook profile.

Other Methods of Retrieving Information from Social Media Sites

Law enforcement officials may contact a social media site directly in order to obtain an individual’s activity and information, and each site has its own policy about when and how it will deliver such information. In some cases, the site will notify the user when a police officer has requested information, while others may turn over evidence when officials produce a subpoena or warrant.

If the situation is an emergency, the officers may file an emergency request with social media sites. They can also get a subpoena to ensure that the site complies with the request.

Law enforcement officials use many methods to help them track down criminals and prevent crime, and technology has made it possible for them to make arrests based on social media activity. Some law experts argue that this is in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prevents unwarranted search and seizures, but federal judges have stated that information that has been shared online with friends and family members can be collected without a warrant. Until the Supreme Court addresses the topic, police officers can legally monitor individuals through their social media accounts, and the information that they gather can be used as incriminating evidence.

If you have been accused of a crime in the Houston area, call attorney Billy Skinner today at (713) 600-7777 or email info@billyskinnerlaw.com. We will fight aggressively to protect your rights and freedom.

Photo by Sean MacEnteeUsed under Creative Commons image attribution license 2.0

Categories: Criminal Defense