News Column

Why Cops Love Social Media

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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 social networking sites.

In February, a Scranton Prep senior was charged with terroristic threats because he posted a Twitter message claiming he was going to "blow up" two area schools.

No bomb was found, but his record and name -- criminally and online -- are now smeared.

Social media have a dark side, as Lackawanna County Judge Robert Mazzoni said Thursday at a sentencing for a fatal stabbing. A fight on Facebook provided two men with a forum to arrange a physical fight at a Jessup park in November 2011. Dylan Michael Ostrowski, 21, of Carbondale, was sentenced to 4 1/2 to 9 years Thursday for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Lawrence Atkinson.

Judge Mazzoni said if the men had not been electronically communicating that day in 2011, the crime that followed would have not taken place.

Police have made numerous arrests for crimes committed on social media sites. Arrests are easy, because the evidence is posted and can be more implicating than leaning on the reliability of a witness' memory, experts said.

"Social media is the 21st century witness to a crime," said Joshua L. Brunty, an assistant professor of digital forensics at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

Mr. Brunty, who recently co-wrote the book, "Social Media Investigation for Law Enforcement," said digital forensics is generating the same level of excitement today as DNA testing did when it first came onto the scene.

Clues are endless -- photos, videos and words, all stored on Web servers indefinitely.

"You're looking at a very reliable witness and evidence, and the courts are asking for that sort of evidence because it's so reliable," Mr. Brunty said.

For example, investigators now comb through a suspect's friends list on Facebook to be able to later interview them and hopefully develop corroborative evidence, Mr. Brunty said. A network of their associates is available with a single click.

There are controversial techniques that are still playing out in the courts. Investigators have turned online friends into confidential informants so they can access suspects' private Facebook pages, Mr. Brunty said. Undercover detectives have "friended" suspects to get access to their pages.

"You don't know if that's an undercover detective" among your 600 friends, he said.

Police are also using social media to get help find fugitives.

A month ago, Blakely police began posting the names of those with active warrants on their Facebook page. Within 24 hours, they cleared 32 warrants.

"It's an embarrassment " Blakely police Chief Guy Salerno said. "They saw their name, went up to the magistrate's office. In the weeks since, we have still had success."

Dickson City police have used Facebook to solve a recent rash of "gallon-smashing" incidents in which pranksters stageg falls and smash large beverage containers in grocery stores. After police posted surveillance footage of the people involved in the vandalism at the Dickson City Target and Wegman's, several of the participants turned themselves in.

"It's becoming a good asset for us," Dickson City Police Chief William Bilinski said. "We've been able to post photos and the public really takes an interest in trying to help. This is a great way to get the public involved."

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(c)2013 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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