The Role of Social Media in Criminal Defense Cases

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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In today’s digital world, social media has become an integral part of our daily lives. From sharing photos and updates with friends to connecting with new people and staying informed, these platforms have changed the way we communicate and interact. However, while social media can be a fun and engaging way to stay connected, it can also have unintended consequences, particularly in the realm of criminal defense. In this blog post, we’ll explore how social media content can become evidence in a criminal defense case and discuss some notable examples where social media has played a significant role in the outcome of the case.

How Social Media Can Hurt Your Criminal Defense Case

In an era where nearly everything we do is documented online, it’s essential to recognize that what you post on social media can significantly impact your criminal defense case. From seemingly innocent pictures to private messages, your online activity can be analyzed and used against you in court. Understanding the risks associated with social media can help you make informed decisions about what you share and how you communicate online.

How Social Media Can Hurt Your Criminal Defense Case

Social media content, such as posts, photos, videos, and private messages, can be used as evidence in court if it is relevant to the case. The use of social media content as evidence in criminal defense cases has become increasingly common in recent years, as courts have come to recognize its potential value in establishing facts, timelines, and connections between individuals. Here, we’ll discuss some of the ways social media content can be utilized as evidence and the potential implications of this practice.

  • Establishing timelines: Social media posts can help prosecutors or defense attorneys establish a timeline of events surrounding a crime. For instance, posts made before, during, or after an alleged incident can provide clues about a person’s whereabouts, activities, or state of mind at the time of the crime.

  • Proving motive or intent: Social media content can also be used to establish a person’s motive or intent in committing a crime. For example, posts that express anger, jealousy, or a desire for revenge may be used by the prosecution to demonstrate a motive for the accused’s actions. Conversely, the defense may use social media content to show a lack of motive or to present an alternative explanation for the accused’s actions.

  • Establishing connections: Social media can help demonstrate connections between individuals involved in a crime, such as co-conspirators or witnesses. Friends lists, shared posts, or tagged photos can be used as evidence to show a relationship between the accused and other relevant parties.

  • Challenging credibility: Social media content can also be used to challenge the credibility of witnesses. For example, if a witness claims to have been at a certain location at the time of the crime, but social media posts show that they were elsewhere, this could be used by the defense to discredit the witness’s testimony.

  • Demonstrating character: In some cases, social media content may be used to demonstrate a person’s character or to provide context for their actions. Posts that show a pattern of violent or threatening behavior could be used by the prosecution to argue that the accused is predisposed to criminal activity, while the defense might use posts that depict the accused as a responsible, law-abiding citizen to counter such claims.

However, it’s important to note that not all social media content is admissible as evidence in court. To be considered admissible, the content must be relevant to the case, authentic (i.e., not tampered with or fabricated), and its probative value must outweigh any prejudicial effect on the accused. Additionally, courts may impose limits on the use of social media evidence to protect the privacy rights of individuals or to prevent jurors from being unduly influenced by inflammatory or prejudicial content.

The Legal Process for Accessing Social Media Evidence

Law enforcement and prosecution often rely on social media to gather evidence in criminal defense cases. This evidence can include public posts, photos, videos, and even private messages. To access this information, they use various legal processes, such as search warrants, subpoenas, and court orders. Below, we’ll explore how these processes work and what they entail.

  • Search Warrants: A search warrant is a legal document issued by a judge or magistrate that authorizes law enforcement to search a specific location for evidence related to a crime. To obtain a search warrant for social media content, law enforcement must establish probable cause, which means they have reasonable grounds to believe that evidence of a crime can be found in the target’s social media account. Once a warrant is issued, law enforcement can request the social media platform to provide the requested information.

  • Subpoenas: A subpoena is a legal document that requires a person or organization to provide documents, information, or testimony related to a legal case. Prosecutors can issue subpoenas to social media platforms to obtain user information, such as IP addresses, login details, and even private messages. However, a subpoena typically requires a lower standard of proof than a search warrant and is often subject to greater scrutiny by the courts.

    • Motion to quash: Should a prosecutor attempt to subpoena your social media page, including private messages, your criminal defense attorney should file a motion called a motion to quash to prevent the State from obtaining the evidence. The grounds for the motion to quash may be on your privacy rights, as well as the rules of evidence such as the lack of relevance and the State essentially being on a “fishing expedition” for evidence without the requisite showing of relevance.

  • Court Orders: A court order is a legally binding directive issued by a judge that requires a person or organization to take specific actions. Court orders can be used to compel social media platforms to disclose user information or content, such as deleted posts or private messages. Like search warrants and subpoenas, court orders must be based on a reasonable belief that the requested information is relevant to the case.

Social Media Platforms and Law Enforcement Cooperation

Social media platforms have policies in place to handle law enforcement requests for user information. These policies typically require that requests be accompanied by legal documentation from the appropriate authorities. In some cases, platforms may notify users of the request unless they are legally prohibited from doing so, or if the notification would compromise the investigation.


It is important to note that social media platforms are not obligated to automatically comply with every request they receive. They may challenge requests that they believe are overly broad, lack proper legal basis, or violate user privacy rights. Additionally, some platforms may have specific guidelines for handling requests from law enforcement agencies outside their country of origin, which could further complicate the process.

Examples of Social Media’s Influence on Criminal Defense Cases

The following examples showcase the profound influence social media can have on criminal defense cases. These real-life incidents demonstrate how online activity can lead to the discovery of critical evidence, the apprehension of suspects, and even the conviction of criminals. By examining these cases, we can gain valuable insights into the role social media plays in modern criminal defense litigation.

Pokemon Go Robberies (2016)

In Missouri, a group of individuals used the popular mobile game Pokemon Go to lure unsuspecting players to remote locations to rob them at gunpoint. The criminals set up a virtual “lure module” at a Pokestop, drawing players to the location with the promise of catching rare Pokemon. Law enforcement officials were able to track the suspects through the game and social media, eventually leading to their arrest and conviction. The case demonstrated the potential dangers of combining social media and geolocation services, as well as the role these platforms can play in criminal investigations.

Instagram Reckless Driving (2016)

A New York City driver posted a video on Instagram, showcasing his dangerous driving at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour. The video went viral and caught the attention of local law enforcement. They used the video as evidence to identify and arrest the driver, charging him with reckless driving and other related offenses. The social media post not only led to the driver’s arrest but also raised awareness about the dangers of reckless driving.

Facebook Live Assault (2017)

In Chicago, a group of individuals kidnapped and assaulted a mentally disabled teenager, streaming the attack on Facebook Live. The video quickly went viral and was used as evidence in the case, leading to the arrest and conviction of the attackers on charges of aggravated kidnapping, hate crimes, and aggravated battery. The incident sparked a nationwide conversation about the responsibility of social media platforms to monitor and remove violent content, as well as the role of bystanders who viewed and shared the video without reporting it to the authorities.

Snapchat Robbery (2018)

In Florida, police arrested three suspects involved in an armed robbery that was orchestrated using Snapchat. The victim was lured into a trap outside his home when a young woman responded to his Snapchat request to get something to eat. After picking him up, the woman began acting suspiciously, and the victim was subsequently attacked by three men who wore makeshift masks and stole his iPhone and cash. Police tracked down the woman through social media and, using witness statements and further social media investigation, identified and arrested the culprits. In this case, social media played a pivotal role in both executing the crime and solving it.

Florida Mansion Break-In and House Party (2022)

In Seaside, Florida, a group of over 200 teenagers broke into an $8 million mansion and threw an unsanctioned house party while the homeowners were away. The teens stole valuables, drank expensive alcohol, and even hosted an impromptu boxing match. The involvement of social media was significant in this case, as the teens documented their actions through videos and photos, which they then posted on TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. Many of the participants were identified through their social media posts, with parents, school officials, and neighboring police departments helping in the investigation. The unsanctioned house party had also been advertised on social media prior to the break-in.

TikTok Car Thefts (2023)

In Aberdeen, Maryland, police arrested multiple suspects, including a 19-year-old ringleader and two teenagers, in connection with a social media-driven crime wave tied to TikTok. The culprits targeted easy-to-steal Kia and Hyundai vehicles, resulting in at least ten vehicles being stolen or damaged over a six-week period. The challenge inspired by TikTok led to high-speed chases and stolen cars being set on fire in an attempt to destroy evidence. Social media played a significant role in fueling this crime spree, demonstrating the potential negative impact of such platforms on criminal behavior.

Using Social Media Responsibly: Tips for Protecting Your Case

To avoid negatively impacting your criminal defense case, it is essential to use social media responsibly. This includes:

  • Avoid discussing any details of your case or the charges against you: Posting information about your case on social media can be seen by the prosecution and used against you. Sharing details may also compromise the integrity of the investigation or the legal strategy your attorney is pursuing. As such, we recommend only discussing the details of your case with your criminal defense attorney. Do not post publicly about your case, or the facts and circumstances regarding your case.

  • Refrain from posting anything that could be perceived as evidence of guilt or that contradicts your defense: Be aware that any posts, photos, or videos you share could be used as evidence in court. Even seemingly innocuous content can be taken out of context and used against you.

  • Be cautious about who you communicate with and what you share, as private messages can be subpoenaed and used as evidence: Remember that your online communications may not be as private as you think. Prosecutors can obtain access to your private messages if they believe it is relevant to their case, and these messages can then be used as evidence in court.

  • Consider adjusting your privacy settings to limit who can view your content: By tightening your privacy settings, you can minimize the risk of your content being used against you in court. Be aware, however, that privacy settings are not foolproof, and determined individuals may still be able to access your content.

  • Consult with your attorney before posting anything related to your case on social media: Your attorney can provide guidance on what is appropriate to share and what should be avoided. They can also help you understand the potential legal consequences of your social media activity.

Safeguard Your Social Media

As we have seen, social media can have a significant impact on the outcome of criminal defense cases. While these platforms can be a convenient way to stay connected with friends and family, it’s crucial to remember that your online activity can be used as evidence in court. By understanding how social media content can be used in criminal defense cases and using these platforms responsibly, you can minimize the potential negative impact on your case.

If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges and needs expert legal advice, don’t hesitate to contact Barnes & Fersten. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys understand the complexities of the law and will work tirelessly to protect your rights and secure the best outcome for your case. Contact us today for a consultation and let us help you navigate the legal process.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.