Does Law Enforcement Use Social Media to Investigate Crimes?

Law enforcement officials use various tactics to investigate criminal offenses. One method recently adopted by agencies across the country is scouring social media platforms to identify suspects, gather evidence that links a person to a crime, or get into the suspect’s state of mind to determine intent.

Millions of people have social media accounts on sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram. They use these platforms to post photos and/or inform friends and followers about their day. In some cases, they might brag about something they did. Unfortunately, not all of the information users post talks of legal activities, and a person could unknowingly link themselves to a crime because of an update or comment they made online.

In August of 2019, police in Cedar Falls, Iowa arrested two people suspected of being involved in a brawl with about a dozen others on College Hill. They reviewed surveillance footage and examined social media sites to identify the two individuals.

But what about Fourth Amendment protections? Doesn’t going through social media violate that right?

What Is the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every person in this country a right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. That means law enforcement can’t just barge into someone’s house or search their personal property for evidence unless they have a warrant to do so. In some cases, such as vehicle searches, if they don’t have a warrant, they must have probable cause, meaning they must suspect a crime has been or will be committed.

Unfortunately, social media posts aren’t always covered under this Constitutional protection. In 2012, a federal judge ruled that a man who was charged with murder gave up his right to privacy the moment he posted details about his activities online.

Law Enforcement Methods for Searching Social Media

Officials search social media in various ways when investigating a crime.

Investigators might:

  • Simply log onto a platform, find the suspect’s page, and look at the posts.
  • Ask one of the user’s friends or followers to let them see what the suspect has posted — if the account is private.
  • Go undercover on the platform, creating a fake profile and “friending” the suspect.

If those methods don’t work, the investigator might try getting access from the social media company. However, they can’t just demand that the platform provide them with the information they need. Like other searches, they must obtain subpoenas or warrants before being granted access. However, if a person’s life is at risk, the officials could get immediate access to a person’s profile by filing an emergency request.

For the Legal Defense You Need, Contact Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger

If you’re facing charges, and law enforcement gathered evidence in a way that violates your rights, it could be suppressed at trial. Our attorneys have handled various criminal matters, including assault, theft, and drug crime cases. We know the law and will challenge the prosecutor’s accusations to ensure your rights are protected.

We will fight aggressively for you. Call us at (319) 499-5524 or contact us online for a free consultation.