How cops use social media to expedite arrests

A brief look into the possible infringements on First Amendment rights in the new digital age of crime fighting.

When Police Officer Kimberly Felix issued a search warrant against a former gang member in Los Angeles, she requested that Facebook Inc. hand over all the records associated with his profile — everything from GPS locations, to private messages, even information about the individuals on his friends list. She wanted to find videos of incriminating evidence in his private messages or elsewhere, according to the search warrant.

With this all-access pass to his profile, Officer Felix was able to charge Robert Spells, 30, on four separate counts of human trafficking/child prostitution, and an additional two counts of murder, that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, all from behind a computer screen.

Felix, who works with the human trafficking and prostitution team in SouthBay LA, used Spell’s profile to investigate the case entirely online, by sifting through mass data that was handed over by Facebook’s law enforcement team.

In recent years, four out of five police officers have admitted to using social media networks as a data mine for clues while investigating their suspects, even though only 10 percent of officers are officially trained in social media investigation techniques, according to a survey conducted by LexisNexis in 2012.

This technique seems highly effective, especially in the case of Cincinnati’s police department, which arrested 71 people on gang charges through a social media investigation in 2008.

But are these practices always legal? According to the same LexisNexis survey, cops will create fake profiles to trap suspects into illegal activity. And even though this is also illegal on their part according to Facebook’s terms and conditions, 83 percent of cops say they had no ethical problems with it at all.

In the case of one Minnesota man, Darrin Anderson, “Facebook turned over two and a half years of data associated with the then 31-year-old’s profile, including more than 800 chat conversations, primarily with girls under 18,” after police officers filed a search warrant against Anderson, according to CNN.

While it’s unclear if anything of value turned up in the online chat conversations, it does pose an important question:

Are police officers infringing on certain privacy rights when they collect mass data from civilians’ personal social media profiles? There are parts of this data that can be misinterpreted, as was the case with Pennsylvania man, Anthony D. Elonis, who posted a threatening status about murdering his estranged wife, but claimed he was using his words in a lyrical way, according to Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) said in a statement that it is important to consider the state of mind someone is in when they are expressing themselves on social media networks. That is the surest way to protect First Amendment rights.

“‘Words are slippery things,’ wrote Stephen Shapiro. He said that a statute that limits speech ‘without regard to the speaker’s intended meaning’ runs the risk of punishing protected First Amendment expression simply because it is ‘crudely or zealously expressed,’” said Vogue in her report for CNN.

There are also Fourth Amendment rights at risk when police officers investigate social media profiles of suspected criminals without proving there is probable cause. A spokesperson at Southern California’s ACLU office said there is a major violation of rights when unreasonable search and seizures come into play, which is essentially what police officers will do via unofficial social media investigations that are conducted before filing search warrants or through fake profiles.