The Facebook Defense: Social Networking as Alibi

(TIME) — Facebook is great at wasting your time, but could it keep you from doing hard time? So far, the site that connects people with their sixth-grade crushes and lets countless parents keep better tabs on their teenagers has helped at least one Facebook member stay out of jail.

According to several legal experts, a 19-year-old in New York City may be the first person to have successfully used Facebook to provide an alibi. When Rodney Bradford was charged with mugging two males at gunpoint in Brooklyn on a Saturday in October, it didn’t help that he was already facing a previous robbery indictment. And although Bradford’s father and stepmother backed up his claim that at the time of the alleged mugging, he was in Harlem at his father’s apartment, witnesses identified him in a lineup, says his lawyer Robert Reuland.

So how did Bradford walk free? Facebook. On the day of the crime, which took place around 11:50 a.m., his status on Facebook was updated at 11:49 a.m.: “on the phone with this fat chick…wherer my i hop.” He had been talking with his girlfriend and referenced a recent visit to the restaurant chain IHOP. A Brooklyn district attorney subpoenaed Facebook and, with the pulled records, Reuland was able to convince her that Bradford’s Facebook update had been posted within a minute of “the time the crime was alleged to have happened, from an IP address registered to [Bradford’s] father in Manhattan.”

“What we had in hand was irrefutable proof,” says Reuland. “And that’s really where it turned the trick.” Bradford’s Facebook alibi “made the day,” he says.

The alibi defense is as old as judges and juries. But there are a lot of new ways to back up an alibi now that people are documenting their daily lives with tweets, pokes and photo tags. “Digital information can sometimes be more easily authenticated, because of date and time stamps provided on computer servers,” says John Browning, a Dallas-based attorney who studies social networking and the law.

Facebook profiles have helped nab all kinds of people, from unfaithful spouses in divorce settlements to cheaters in insurance-fraud cases. As Browning noted this month at a conference sponsored by the Texas Center for the Judiciary, our online lives are “virtual treasure troves of information” for lawyers and judges.

“Whenever we’re on the Internet, we leave behind this very revealing and gigantic trail of information,” says Nicholas Bramble, a Yale Law School fellow who has studied digital evidence. And that trail — which can include anything from a post on a Facebook profile to a message to a MySpace contact to an appearance in the background of a stranger’s photo — can be a “huge resource” in judicial proceedings, he says.

Erasing your electronic footprints is not easy. It takes a serious geek to do it right. For example, bleaching your Google search history from your computer doesn’t mean that it’s gone permanently — Google could have that information stored on a server somewhere.

But you don’t have to use high-tech maneuvers to pull a Facebook sleight of hand. Couldn’t a criminal simply have a buddy log in to his or her Facebook account and generate activity to provide an alibi?

Absolutely, says Bramble. “There are worries that arise based on fabrication and tampering.” But for Bradford, the bottom line remains: Facebook got him off the hook.

First published on time.com Jan. 21, 2010