When can the prosecution use Facebook messages against the defendant?
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Mangel. In Mangel, the Superior Court held that the trial court properly denied the Commonwealth’s motion to admit supposedly incriminating Facebook messages against the defendant because the Commonwealth failed to prove that the defendant wrote the messages.
Commonwealth v. Mangel
Mangel involved the assault of a man at a graduation party. Prosecutors charged the defendant with Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault, and Harassment after the complainant told police that several fights ensued as a result of multiple people arriving uninvited at the party. The complainant stated that as he was walking away from the fights, he was struck in the back of the head, knocked to the ground, and repeatedly punched and kicked by the defendant and a co-defendant. The complainant did not know either defendant and had not spoken with them during the party, but he was able to identify them after family members showed him Facebook photos of the defendants. The complainant suffered facial lacerations, broken bones, and lost several of his teeth during the assault.
The Admission of Facebook Evidence
In order to prove the case against Mangel, the prosecution sought to obtain his Facebook records. The prosecution obtained a court order directing Facebook to provide records to them. The Commonwealth then filed a Motion in Limine asking the trial court to permit the introduction of screenshots of certain pages of a Facebook account for a “Tyler Mangel.” The screenshots showed various online and mobile device Facebook messenger messages. The Commonwealth also sought to introduce a photograph from the Facebook account of bloody hands which had been posted by a different individual on the Tyler Mangel page.
The trial court conducted a hearing on the Motion in Limine. At the hearing, an Erie County Detective attempted to authenticate the messages and photos for the Commonwealth. After being qualified as an expert witness in computer forensics, the detective testified that she had been asked to determine the owner of the Tyler Mangel profile page by the prosecution. In order to do so, she searched Facebook for the name Tyler Mangel. She testified that only one result appeared. She then compared that page to the screenshots that the prosecutors had given to her. She determined that both the screenshots and the page that she found bore the name Tyler Mangel, listed the account holder as living in Meadville, PA, and that some of the photographs on both the screenshots and the Facebook page were the same. The about section of the page also provided that the individual attended Meadville High School and that the username associated with the Facebook account was Mangel17.
The detective requested subscriber records from Facebook. Using those records, she determined that when the owner of the account created it, that person provided the name Tyler Mangel and email addresses with the name Mangel in them. The account was also linked to a specific cell phone number. The detective obtained a court order for Verizon records and traced the cell phone number to Stacy Mangel and a specific address in Meadville, PA. The court took judicial notice that this was the same address listed as the address for the defendant in the Criminal Complaint.
The detective concluded that the screenshots the Commonwealth wanted to introduce must have come from that account because both accounts 1) had the same name, 2) listed the account holder as living in Meadville, 3) listed the account holder as having attended the same high school, and 4) displayed photographs of the same individual. The trial court, however, asked the detective if she could provide that opinion to a reasonable degree of computer and scientific certainty that the account belonged to the defendant and whether the detective could testify that no one else accessed and posted things on the account. The detective testified that she could not provide that opinion with any certainty.
In addition to not being certain that no one else could have owned or used the Facebook account, the detective also confirmed that she did not obtain an IP address for the Facebook account. The defense lawyer also searched for the same name on his own phone and found five listings for Tyler Mangel. Finally, the detective did not link the cell phone information which she had obtained to the defendant.
The trial court denied the Commonwealth’s Motion in Limine to admit the Facebook evidence, and the prosecution appealed. The Superior Court affirmed the decision of the trial court. The Court found that the prosecution had simply failed to prove that the account belonged to the defendant, that the defendant had sent the messages in question or posted the pictures, and that the account could not have been used by someone else to do so. The Court also dismissed the Commonwealth's argument that the detective should not have been required to testify to a reasonable degree of certainty, noting that it is well-settled that all expert witnesses must be able to provide their opinions to a reasonable degree of certainty in the relevant field of study.
The Authentication of Facebook Messages in a Criminal Case
The Superior Court noted that there is relatively little case law in Pennsylvania on authenticating Facebook evidence and text messages in criminal cases. In general, Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 901 provides that authentication is required prior to the admission of evidence. The party that seeks to introduce evidence must show to the court that the evidence is what it purports to be. In some cases, that can be shown through the testimony of a witness with personal knowledge. For example, had a friend testified that they had watched the defendant access the Facebook account, that could have been sufficient to show that it was the defendant’s account. Here, the prosecution had no direct evidence or witnesses with personal knowledge that could link the account to the defendant.
When the party seeking to admit the evidence does not have a witness with personal knowledge, the evidence may be authenticated through circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence involves the appearance, contents, substance, internal patterns, or other distinctive characteristics of the item, taken together with all the circumstances surrounding it.
Here, the circumstantial evidence simply did not prove to a sufficient degree of reliability that the account belonged to the defendant or that the defendant had posted the information which the prosecution sought to introduce. Facebook accounts, like email and messaging accounts, can be accessed from any computer or smart phone with the appropriate user identification and password. The Court noted that social media presents unique challenges because of the great ease with which a social media account may be falsified. A legitimate account may also be accessed by an imposter.
In some cases, there may be sufficient circumstantial evidence with which to authenticate a social media account. Therefore, the Court ruled that social media evidence must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not there has been an adequate foundational showing both of its relevance and its authenticity. The proponent of the evidence must show either direct or circumstantial evidence that tends to corroborate the identity of the author of the message or post. This could include testimony from the person who sent or received the communication, or contextual clues in the communication tending to reveal the identity of the sender. For example, if a message from the defendant's account arranged a meeting with a witness and then the defendant showed up to the meeting, the circumstantial evidnece would suggest that it was the defendant's account. However, social media can easily be hacked and forged, so the mere fact that an account has a person’s name or photo on it is simply insufficient to show that the account belongs to that person. The party introducing the evidence must be able to show more than that.
Here, the trial court properly prohibited the admission of the evidence because the prosecution showed only that the account appeared to belong to the defendant. The defendant never admitted ownership of it, and the prosecution did not call any witnesses to testify that they had communicated with the defendant using that account. Anyone could have created the account, added photos, and claimed that they went to Meadville High School and were Tyler Mangel. The prosecution also failed to provide date and time stamps to show when the posts were created, and the posts were ambiguous and did not clearly reference the allegations in the case. Accordingly, the Superior Court agreed with the defense attorney that the evidence was not sufficiently relevant and authentic. Therefore, it upheld the trial court’s ruling excluding the Facebook screenshots.
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