A recent Court decision in New York reminds us that we should choose your Facebook “friends” wisely. The opinion describes how a “friend” became a cooperating witness (commonly called a “snitch”) and used his status as a “friend” to give the government information that will be used by prosecutors at trial. The same reasoning applies to everyone in Pennsylvania, writes Erie Criminal Defense Attorney and Computer Crimes Lawyer Tim George.
A federal judge in New York recently held that the government can use information received from a Facebook “friend” in order to access the Facebook profile of a suspect and then use all such information as evidence against him at a criminal trial. In United States v. Meregildo, a court held that evidence obtained from the Facebook profile belonging to Melvin “Melly” Colon can be used against him at trial after one of his “friends” decided that it would be better for him to share the information with the prosecutors than face the weight of criminal allegations himself. The information tended to show that Melly was involved in criminal activity and a gang member. (Melly posted nearly 10 pages of incriminating information which also shows that he was not too smart, either.)
As citizens in the United States, and in Pennsylvania, we have a right to be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantee us this right. We have an expectation of privacy to the information on our personal computers, which is why the government must first obtain a search warrant before seizing such property. The judge in Meregildo agreed. However, the court nevertheless will allow the evidence obtained from the Facebook “friend” to be used against Melly at trial. Why?
The federal judge wrote that while people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of their home computers, this expectation is not absolute. The judge wrote that Melly’s legitimate expectation of privacy “ended when he disseminated posts to his ‘friends’ because those ‘friends’ were free to use the information however they wanted – including sharing it with the government.” In other words, the information on your computer is private until you post it online and allow “friends” to see, read and share your information with anyone they want, including the district attorney.
So, the old adage “choose your friends wisely” is true both in life and on Facebook (and all other online media). So, you should protect yourself by adjusting the settings on your profile to limit the amount of information you share. Still better, you should not post anything online that you are not prepared to read on the front page of the Erie Times-News or would want a jury to hear at your trial.
Melly Colon failed to take these simple precautions in New York and now it will be used against him at trial. But everyone in Pennsylvania, from Erie to Edinboro and Warren to Meadville and all places in between, can – and should – avoid making the same mistakes.