FRANKLIN, Ind. (AP) — Teens charged with underage drinking said they a didn’t have any alcohol, but pictures posted on Facebook showed them sipping from bottles of liquor, wine or beer.
In another case, Franklin police found a group of Bob Marley fans who were spraying “One Love” graffiti across the city through a MySpace page dedicated to the singer’s hit.
Investigators with the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office use Facebook to find deadbeat parents who aren’t paying child support and have them arrested and hauled back to court.
Local police officers, prosecutors and attorneys are turning to social networking sites to find suspects and tie them to a crime.
But the investigation doesn’t end when a person is charged or makes an appearance in court; online profiles of defendants, witnesses and victims are monitored to see what they’re saying about the case, attorneys said.
Screenshots of a Facebook profile or a wall posting are more frequently finding their way into evidence during a trial and can bolster or discredit someone’s testimony, attorney Jay Hoffman said.
He’s been involved in cases where people claiming to be a victim in a battery case brag on a social networking site that they set the other person up.
Attorney Andy Roesener has started telling all new clients to be careful about what they post to a social networking site while a case is pending. He’s heard of people posting information online about what happened in court that day or the intricate details of a case.
People may not realize that what they put online can be printed out and used as evidence, but that’s exactly what attorneys have been doing, Hoffman said. He and other lawyers have their clients log into Facebook and print off wall posts or photos, then make sure they’re printed with a time and date stamp to show when the material was accessed. A screenshot of a Facebook page or photo is admissible in court.
Because Facebook has privacy settings that allow only certain users to see their profiles or pictures, attorneys ask their clients to look at the pages of their Facebook friends involved in the case.
Prosecutors and attorneys also can subpoena the Facebook pages of people with privacy settings that they’re unable to access themselves.
Most of the time, information found online helps supplement other evidence already gathered by police, such as interview transcripts and video footage, Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.
But in an underage drinking case last year, Facebook photos were a linchpin, he said. Five teens and 20-year-olds faced misdemeanor underage drinking charges after reportedly drinking alcohol provided by a parent while at a party.
The teens denied drinking that night, but one of them posted a photo album on Facebook showing them holding alcoholic beverage bottles and drinking from them, Cooper said.
After the teens were shown the pictures, they withdrew their not-guilty pleas.
Prosecutors also tracked the Facebook profile of Will Slinger, who was convicted in 2007 of two counts of operating a vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance.
Slinger had smoked marijuana the day he crashed his vehicle into a van and killed a passenger inside. On his Facebook page, Slinger referenced his marijuana use and also posted photos of a bong, Cooper said.
“If (defendants) take the stand in the trial, we can use that to cross-examine them,” he said.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to measure how evidence from Facebook or MySpace impacts a case, Franklin attorney Andy Baldwin said.
He and his law partner earlier this year represented Thomas Hibbs, who faced sexual misconduct charges after having sex with a girl who was under 16, the legal age of consent.
Part of the defense’s argument was that the girl presented herself as older than she was, including putting on her MySpace page that she was older than she actually was, Baldwin said. The trial ended with a hung jury, and the case likely will be tried again.