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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Facebook Status -- Exonerated: Suspect's Facebook Update Corroborates Alibi In Brooklyn Robbery

I have written several posts on this blog (herehereherehere, and here) about cases dealing with the admissibility of evidence from MySpace pages. A case out of New York, however, gives me my first opportunity to address the admissibility of evidence from a Facebook page. And indeed, it appears to be the first case in which a Facebook update has been used as alibi evidence.

On October 18th, 19 year-old Rodney Bradford learned that police were looking for him in connection with a robbery committed in Brooklyn at 11:50 a.m. the day before. Bradford claimed that he was in Harlem, visiting his father at the time, a claim supported by Mr. Bradford’s father, Rodney Bradford Sr., and his stepmother, Ernestine Bradford. As it turns out, Bradford had even stronger evidence corroborating his alibi.

According to Bradford, he was updating his Facebook page from a computer in his father's apartment in Harlem at the time of the robbery. Bradford's claim led the district attorney to subpoena Facebook for documentation that Bradford had updated his Facebook page from his father's apartment at the relevant time. The subpoena was successful as it uncovered that Bradford posted the message, "ON THE PHONE WITH THIS FAT CHICK......WHERER MY IHOP," at 11:49 a.m. on October 17th from his father's computer

According to defense attorney Robert Reuland, "It all corroborated our alibis....The Facebook thing was really the icing on the cake. I think, ultimately, it's what prompted the DA to dismiss." For their part, Facebook officials said they were "pleased" they were "able to serve as a constructive part of the judicial process." Meanwhile, according to attorney John Browning, "This is the first case that I’m aware of in which a Facebook update has been used as alibi evidence....We are going to see more of that because of how prevalent social networking has become."  

That's not to say, though, that the use of this type of evidence is new. As an article on the case noted,

With more people living their lives online and out loud, social media sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, and online Web communications including photos and videos, are providing evidence in legal battles ranging from murder trials to employment lawsuits.

Up to now, social networking transactions have mostly been used as prosecutorial evidence, Mr. Browning said. He cited a burglar in September in Martinsburg, Pa., where the alleged burglar checked his Facebook page — and left it open. The police followed the digital trail to Jonathan G. Parker, 19, of Fort Loudoun, Pa., who was arrested.

That's also not to say that this type of evidence is uncontroversial. Joseph Pollini, who teaches in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said prosecutors should not have been so quick to drop the charges.

"With a username and password, anyone can input data in a Facebook page," he said. "Some of the brightest people on the Internet are teenagers," he said. "They know the Internet better than a lot of people. Why? Because they use it all the time. "So they could develop an alibi," he said. "They watch television, the movies, there is a multitude of reasons why someone of that age would have the knowledge to do a crime like that."

That said, Reuland challenged this argument, contending,

“This implies a level of criminal genius that you would not expect from a young boy like this; he is not Dr. Evil,"...adding that the Facebook entry was just “the icing on the cake,” since his client had the other alibis.

It will certainly be interesting to see how these types of social networking evidentiary issues play out of the next couple of years.

(Hat tip to my colleague Shahram Dana for the link)

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2009/11/i-have-written-several-posts-on-this-blog-herehereherehere-andhere-about-cases-dealing-with-the-admissibility-of-eviden.html

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Posted by: Colorado Criminal Defense Attorney | Dec 20, 2010 4:57:40 AM

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