Witnesses Being Intimidated Through Social Media

Witness intimidationSocial media helps keep friends and family members connected, but new evidence suggests others are using these sites for a more sinister purpose. According to NBC News, a few users are using social media sites to intimidate witnesses by publishing their information online. 

Bradley Shear, an attorney who specializes in social media law, said he’s not surprised that witness information is being spread in the digital world.

“It’s absolutely not surprising to me. People are taking pictures of witnesses, they’re posting them online, and they’re doing it specifically for witness intimidation,” said Shear. “And it’s only going to increase with frequency. People have to be so careful with where they are, who is taking pictures of them.”

Witness intimidation tactics have been used for centuries, and it usually involves implying or directly stating that an ill fate may befall a witness or their loved ones if they testify against a defendant. With more information than ever before available to anyone with an Internet connection, those seeking to influence a verdict can track down addresses and phone numbers of witnesses with a few clicks.

There have been several notable examples of social media sites being used to expose witnesses, including:

  • An Intsagram account devoted to exposing witnesses who have testified against certain violent criminals in the Philadelphia area.
  • A woman was sentenced to 2-5 years in prison for posting witness testimony on Facebook which included the witness’ name, address and sworn statement in an attempted murder case.
  • A 20-year-old man was sentenced to 23 months in prison for threatening witnesses on Facebook and posting status updates that said, “Kill all rats.”
  • The online database whosarat.com, which has over 5,000 photos of criminal informants.

“Social media is one of those double-edged swords,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School. “On the one hand, it can spread the dangers of intimidation and fear and even certain sorts of crime, but it also provides the basis for new forms of social safety, of sharing information, of protecting victims, of providing information about crimes that we didn’t know before.”

Cook County Combats Intimidation

Gang intimidation has been a problem in the past for some witnesses in Cook County, so law enforcement officials have taken steps to crack down on the crime. Since a lot of classified information can be captured and disseminated with the click of a few buttons on an iPhone, Cook County has banned cell phones from criminal courthouses. Other related electronic devices like laptops and tablets have also been banned by Cook County.

“This ban is important to uphold our justice system and the safety of our courts,” said Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans in a statement. “Intimidation will not be tolerated.”

Sean Sullivan comments

As a defense attorney, I would never advocate for my client to intimidate a witness. It’s a very serious felony charge in and of itself. Plus, the danger to the person threatening the witness is that computer records leave a trail of evidence that can easily tie them to the crime.

Simply put, it is much better to just trust your attorney and let them handle your case. Oftentimes defendants think they are doing something to help their case, but it just ends up hurting their case, or resulting in more charges. I would never want any of my clients to be in that situation.

Related sources: NBC News, Chicago Tribune