Trial

Authenticating Social Media Evidence Is Harder Than Lawyers Think

Let’s play a game. You’re the judge. Under the following facts, is the social media evidence admissible?

After obtaining a Court Order allowing him to obtain a criminal defendant’s Facebook records, the prosecutor files a motion seeking permission to introduce into evidence the following items:

  1. Screenshots of the defendant’s Facebook account
  2. Various undated mobile and online “chat” messages
  3. A bloody hands photo posted by another individual

So, which items were admissible? Not which items should have been admissible?

The answer: None.

Why? Even social media obtained pursuant to a court order must be authenticated properly to be admitted into evidence. In other words, the prosecutor failed to establish sufficiently that the items were “connected” to the defendant even though the Facebook account in question bore the defendant’s name and other characteristics. The chat messages were excluded because they contained insufficient contextual clues establishing the defendant’s identity as the author to allow them in as evidence.

Pennsylvania Evidentiary Standards for Authenticating Electronic Data

The Superior Court, in Commonwealth v. Mangel, 2018 PA Super 57 (Pa. Super. Mar. 15, 2018), ruled that social media evidence authentication requires, at a minimum:

  1. An adequate foundational showing of its relevance and authenticity, and
  2. Direct or circumstantial evidence that tends to corroborate the identity of the author of the communication, such as testimony, or contextual clues in the communication tending to reveal the identity of the sender.
  3. The admissibility is to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for an “adequate foundational showing of its relevance and authenticity.”

Direct Evidence such as electronic communications or documents require more than mere confirmation that the number or address belonged to a particular person to be authenticated and used in court.

Circumstantial evidence may include personal knowledge of participants, and verification to authenticate computerized instant messages, cell phone text messages, Facebook posts, and other contextual clues that tend to corroborate the identity of the sender to verify authorship.

So, was Mr. Mangel lucky that his Facebook chats were not admitted? Yes. But, why? Because the Commonwealth did not do its research and obtain corroborating data to authenticate the messages. In fact, no one testified about the veracity of the messages; thus, they were unverifiable.

Of note, as our office has explained to many clients, as well as lawyers attending continuing legal education programs where we speak, social media records and communications can be properly authenticated within the existing evidentiary rules. To authenticate social media chat messages or emails, the proponent (person offering the evidence) must present sufficient direct and circumstantial evidence to establish its authenticity, that the matter is what it purports to be, and/or testimony of a witness with personal knowledge. See Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 901.

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Don’t let your claim turn into a pumpkin because you should have called a lawyer

The decision to file a lawsuit can be tricky. Generally, a person may only file a lawsuit within a limited time period, known as the statute of limitations. If you wait until the last minute, your claim might change from a lawsuit into a pumpkin on its way to the courthouse.

For the following personal injury claims, the statute of limitations is two years: Negligence, Toxic Tort, Wrongful Death, Medical Malpractice, Products Liability, and Fraud. See 42 Pa. C. S. § 5524. This time limit begins to run on the date the injury occurred.

A lawyer can help you determine whether an exception applies. Exceptions have applied when an injury is not discovered until much later or could not be discovered until more than two years after the act that caused the harm. But in most cases, the statute of limitations for personal injury claims is two years, and you shouldn’t assume it’s longer.

A lawyer can also investigate the claims and explain the likelihood of success before being hurled into protracted litigation.

So talk to a lawyer about your case.

When you retain our law firm:

  1. We investigate your claim
  2. We evaluate the case in a holistic manner
  3. We prepare the most effective complaint possible
  4. We consider all of the potential claims
  5. We have time to address any procedural questions
  6. We make informed decisions that lead you to a successful result.

We believe it is best to retain a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your claim. Contact a lawyer at the Law Offices of Daniel J. Siegel, LLC at 610-446-3457 for a free consultation.

 

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Superior Court Affirms that Jurors May Be Dismissed for Cause When There is the Prospect or Appearance of Partiality or Bias

In Cordes v. Assocs. of Internal Medicine, a divided Superior Court affirmed that jurors may be struck for cause for various reasons, including:
  • First, indirect relationships of a juror to a party with which the juror has had no direct contact, including connections through spouses with a potential (also indirect) employment-related interest in the outcome of the trial, may furnish a basis for per se exclusion.
  • Second, trial courts must err on the side of caution when confronted with such an indirect relationship;

  • Third, no matter the per se nature of the applicable test, the trial court retains discretion to identify and assess the quality of the specific relationship at hand, OKincluding the frequency or remoteness in time of the contacts, may dictate contrary results.

Click here to read the Opinion in Support of Reversal.

Click here to read the additional Opinion in Support of Reversal.

Click here to read the Dissenting Opinion.

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