The massive growth in social media as a mainstream means of communications and sharing of material has dramatically changed the way crimes can be committed.
The rapid development of smart phones means material such as graphics and pictures can be shared in a matter of seconds. It also presents a challenge for law enforcement agencies to police this new media landscape.
For instance, a story in the Washington Post in February revealed how even sending a threatening emoji can constitute a criminal offense. A 12-year-old from Fairfax in Virginia was charged with threatening her school after police said she posted a message on Instagram. Reports stated it contained images of a gun, a bomb and a knife.
Part of the message read “meet me in the library Tuesday.”
It wasn’t the first time an emoji has been considered as a threat. A jury tackled the question in New York. It was asked to decide whether an emoji with the face of a police officer and a gun represented a threat to police officers.
In Michigan, a judge was asked to interpret the meaning of a tongue sticking out. The cases raise important First Amendment questions.
The challenge for police and prosecutors is to draw a line between dark humor and threats. It’s a fine line between free expression and intimidation.
Social Media and Cyber Bullying
Texas, like other states, has had to catch up with digital advances in recent years by enacting cyber bullying statutes.
In our state, “cyberbullying” is defined using any electronic communication device to take part in bullying or intimidation. It doesn’t need to be on social media. It can be via a text message or email.
There is also a crime of harassment that can be committed by sending obscene material, or making threats or false reports.
You can commit the crime of online impersonation by creating a page on a website. You can also be charged with sending messages while pretending to be someone else. It has to be done with the aim of harming, defrauding, or intimidating to be charged.
Online impersonation can be either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the circumstances under the Texas Penal Code § 33.07.
Criminals Broadcast Offenses on Social Media
Ray Surette, a Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida, recently wrote about how social media is changing the way crimes are committed and the way the police respond.
In his article in LSE, he wrote about how people who made bomb threats in past years did it secretly. Now they are more likely to broadcast their threats on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. He noted a move toward “performance crimes” stating:
“It is better to get your performance out there and be known than to be unknown in a celebrity culture, even if criminality is required.”
Surette noted an increase in invasive law enforcement techniques to fight these crimes with police increasingly turning to body and car cameras and community surveillance camera systems.
At Peek & Toland , we constantly question police methods of evidence gathering. In Texas, a cell phone is not like a pair of shoes. It’s more akin to a personal computer and can’t be searched at will.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in State v. Granville that the contents of an inmate’s cell phone were protected, even when he was locked up. Police need a warrant to obtain the contents of your phone.
Threats on social media can range from vaguely threatening statements, as seen during the recent panic about clowns, to terrorist threats that could land you in jail for more than a decade.
If you have been charged with a crime on social media, call an experienced Austin criminal defense lawyer. Call us at Peek & Toland at (512) 399-2311.