Local law enforcement and the courts are turning to social media to
help get inside the minds of criminals.
While old-school detective work is not fading away, investigators can now scour a vast storehouse of information about people, often without their knowledge, because of the wide use of popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Every day in Northeast Pennsylvania, investigators are trawling these sites to find clues, track criminals and turn online "friends" into confidential informants.
South Abington Twp. Patrolman Hank Zimmer calls it "clue surfing."
"It's another tool in the toolbox," Patrolman Zimmer said. "If I run into a dead end, I'll immediately go onto the computer and see what I can find."
Social media are seeping into all aspects of the criminal justice process, from arrest to even the last stop on the road to prison -- sentencing.
At Lackawanna County adult probation and parole office, probation officers sift through the online profiles of people on probation and supervised release to see if they are violating conditions imposed by the court, said its director, Joseph Mecca.
Since people are now more apt to share their private lives online, they have been able to quickly and easily root out parole violators, Mr. Mecca said.
Case in point: A man who was forbidden to own firearms was found in violation of his probation when a search of his Facebook page revealed a photograph of him and his 5-year-old son holding rifles, Mr. Mecca said.
Numerous people have been found in violation of another common requirement of probation -- no alcohol -- when pictures of them drinking surfaced on social media, Mr. Mecca said.
For lawyers, social media posts have created legal nightmares.
Dunmore attorney Joe D'Andrea said advising his clients about what they post online has become a common practice, especially leading up to sentencing.
"It's really amazing how people put their lives out in public with complete disregard for the legal ramifications," Mr. D'Andrea said. "I tell clients to shut down sites. I don't want them posting anything."
It is common for social media posts to be examined during pre-sentencing investigations, Mr. D'Andrea said.
Information gathered during a pre-sentencing investigation is placed in a report given to a judge. It provides a profile of a criminal including socioeconomic history, family ties and a myriad of other background information.
Judges use it to help fashion a sentence.
Federal sentencing guidelines take into account the acceptance of responsibility. It's not just about appearing in court and pleading guilty, Mr. D'Andrea said. Snicker about your case online before going before a judge for sentencing, and expect that "you'll be sentenced harsher and that means more jail time," he said.
During pre-sentencing investigations, probation officers have spotted criminals talking about their victims online, Mr. Mecca said. That information can also become part of the pre-sentencing report.
"More people today talk themselves into more problems (online) than they can imagine," Mr. D'Andrea said.
These lesser-known aspects of social media's influence in the criminal justice process come amid several high-profile arrests because of comments made on
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