Today’s world seems to revolve around technology and digital media. People of all ages are “glued” to their phones, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a student or employee who doesn’t spend several hours per day looking at a computer or laptop screen. Due to the increased prevalence of digital technology, industries have grown and evolved to include innovative solutions into their daily operations. The Coronavirus pandemic expedited the implementation process for many, the court system included.
Though virtual courts are still relatively new, there’s been a steady increase in the occurrence of digital evidence presented in hearings. Digital evidence has been making headlines for years now from the case of George Floyd in 2020 to the Boston Marathon Bombing case back in 2013. Examples of digital evidence that led to convictions and justice stretch back even further, growing more common as technology bleeds into aspects of everyday activities.
With virtual exhibits becoming more commonplace within the courts, it’s crucial to have a solid grasp of the formats included. In this first article of a two-part series, we’ll get into three of the types of digital evidence you can expect to see.
CCTV, Public Video, and Digital Content – Oh My!
Odds are, you’re much more familiar with digital evidence than you may think. Keep in mind that “digital evidence” is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of file types and media channels. Pause for a minute and think about how many times you cross paths with technology during your typical day. If you’re like many people, you’re around digital innovations more often than not. The capabilities of these digital means have allowed mass sharing of videos and images, instant communication around the globe, and more. As you would imagine, the technology that surrounds us has made its way into criminal cases as a form of evidence. For example:
- CCTV: Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) lines the neighborhood streets, shooting video of passersby, intruders, daily traffic, and more. CCTV has been hugely influential in many different court cases, serving as key exhibits leading to convictions. CCTV helps law enforcement identify criminals, develop a timeline, corroborate witness testimonies, and more. CCTV footage is collected by police at and around the crime scene and can then be presented in court if deemed admissible. The Boston Marathon Bombing perpetrator was found thanks to various CCTV videos showing his path through the race route and where he went after dropping off his backpack. You’d be surprised by how many courtrooms still have to wheel in a television and a DVD player to display CCTV evidence in hearings. Technology is saving lives and catching criminals in the act, so why are some districts living in the past without video displays?
- Public Video: Cellphones may as well be surgically connected to our hands. The younger generation is particularly attached to mobile devices, rarely seen out and about without their iPhone within reach. The commonality of cell phones has allowed us to become a digitally conscious culture that can capture moments in photos or videos at the drop of a hat. We’ve all seen the videos of babies taking their first steps, puppies trying a lemon for the first time, and heartwarming soldier homecomings. Personal video has also made its way into the criminal justice system. There is a continual upward trend in public video being presented as evidence in court. Most recently, the publicly recorded video of George Floyd’s arrest sparked debates around the country. This cell phone video was used as the main exhibit during the trial. There was no room for “he says, she says”…. The proof is in the pudding. Other forms of public video include dashcams, Ring doorbells, nanny cams, etc. So long as these videos are proven to be unaltered and admissible, they can close a case in just a few hours. We encourage you to do a quick internet search to see exactly how common it is to find public video as evidence in trials today.
- Digital Content From Devices: Video is only a piece of a much larger puzzle. Cell phones are pocket-sized computers that allow us to integrate technology into nearly any aspect of our lives. Cell phone and computer dumps are submitted to court regularly with the hopes of finding evidence within the device and its history. These files are often enormous, and many courts are ill-equipped. Without the proper digital evidence management system, dumps and zip files might not be admissible. Technology is providing thousands of valuable exhibits, and it’s up to the courts to make it easy to upload, download, and view these files when necessary. Digital content that can be collected from mobile devices, computers, laptops, video games, etc. includes but is not limited to:
- Text messages: As we all know, text messages are most people’s main form of communication. Texts can be seized and searched for criminal trials, typically used to either disprove or corroborate a story, show intent and planning, or point out guilt. Depending on the case, hundreds of texts might need to be admitted into evidence. A file that large can be nearly impossible for courts to handle without the proper digital evidence management system.
- Image/Video files: Media files including photos and videos have been a frequent occurrence in court cases over the last few years. Cell phone users tend to store thousands of media files at a time, all of which could potentially be used as evidence in a criminal case. With 50+ GB of cloud-stored media files, the courts need a way to manage and display any admissible pieces.
- Audio files: Audio files can include voicemails, voice messages/notes, 911 calls, and anything else in a similar format. Audio files are notoriously challenging for courts to seamlessly manage and playback, so proper digital evidence management is required to avoid delays within a hearing.
- Social media accounts: The world seems to revolve around social media these days. Countless criminal cases have used social postings as a form of evidence. Social media activity tends to be consistent for each person, so odd statuses, an unexpected drop-off of posts, or cryptic messages can all be linked back to a case as potential evidence. Saving all the activity from a social account is an enormous task that courts are slowly adapting to.
- Example case: Conviction of Larry Jo Thomas
- Emails: Emails don’t need much explanation. We’re all familiar with email communication in both our personal and professional lives. Emails can be presented as evidence when they point to scandals, nefarious behavior, potential cybersecurity threats, and more. Applicable emails must be saved somewhere, and many courts lack the proper storage solutions.
- Internet search history: If you think that your search history is safe, think again. Even deleted searches can usually be uncovered and are a surefire way to get caught red-handed. An astounding number of criminal cases have involved search history as part of the entered digital evidence. Pro tip: consider NOT searching for answers to suspicious before committing a crime.
- Example case: Conviction of Gilberto Valle
- Documents/Files: When computers are seized, any and all documents/files are fair game when it comes to the investigation. PDFs, documents, spreadsheets, zip files, etc. have all had their day in court, bring criminals to justice. Many black-market crimes involve file-type evidence, as do cybersecurity attacks, illegal distribution rings, and more.
- Case example: 40+ Convictions for “Dreamboard”
So, What’s The Next Step for Courts?
So far, we’ve only discussed three of the 7+ types of digital evidence. How are courts responding to the growing need for technology advancement? Out of the sake of complete transparency, we’ll let you know now that countless courts are behind the times and still do not have the capabilities needed to effectively manage digital evidence. That being said, many court systems are acknowledging the changing evidence trends and are searching for solutions to make the process smoother and more secure. Digital evidence management is a necessity both now and in the future. Take the guesswork out of managing exhibits by enlisting a state-of-the-art system that lets you do it all – import, edit, view, playback, export, present, etc. The pandemic jumpstarted the movement to transform the courts to paperless processes, and we don’t see the trend dying out any time soon. A solid digital evidence management platform will become commonplace to speed up trials, reduce chain of custody violations, or otherwise impede the case.
I Need More Info About Digital Evidence Management
For questions and further discussions about managing digital evidence, feel free to reach out. Our team is always happy to explain the process in more detail as well as provide examples of successes we’ve seen in courts we work with. We love to talk court tech so much that we always have real, personable, anything-but-robotic people available through webchat. Don’t miss Part 2 of this blog for more examples of evidence formats that the ImageSoft Digital Evidence Management handles.