The Emerging Use of Smartphones and Social Media for Intimidating Witnesses in Criminal Prosecutions

With the technology available today, witness intimidation is a major obstacle that the court has to consider in criminal prosecutions. Witness intimidation is the act of “interfering with a witness’s testimony or cooperation in a criminal case.”1 Witness intimidation can take many forms, ranging from explicit threats to implicit harassment.2 Although criminals have historically pressured witnesses not to cooperate with authorities through the use of explicit or implicit harassment, the rise of smartphone technology and social media extends the reach of criminals’ ability to contact or relay messages to witnesses, which can potentially exasperate this dilemma and create a more pressing issue for the courts.3

With the use of smartphones and social media, criminals are easily able to identify those who are cooperating with authorities and intimidate them.4 Camera phones give criminals the ability to take pictures of people suspected of being a witness or a “snitch,” and easily relay that picture to others within seconds. Furthermore, a simple search of a person’s name on social media easily allows for access to personal information and presents ways to deliver threats or harassments between an intimidator and a witness.

In a recent case, a thirty-year-old Cleveland woman witnessed a murder and was subsequently harassed and threatened by friends of the suspect.5 It started with “old-fashioned” face-to-face witness intimidation.6 After learning that one of the intimidators “wr[ote] about her on his Facebook page and solicited others to post her picture, […] she feared for her life.”7

In a different case in Brooklyn, while an accuser of a molestation charge took the stand to testify about the incident, spectators in the courtroom were able to take pictures of the accuser with their smartphones, which were later found appearing on twitter.”8

Despite possible misdemeanor or felony charges for those found guilty of witness intimidation, more needs to be done by the courts to deter criminals from threatening witnesses and prevent witnesses from being exposed to potential intimidators.9. If the courts do not do anything to rectify this issue, logically, less people will be willing to cooperate with authorities out of fear of exposure of their identity. Obviously, advice of a witness is valuable information to the courts, however the court needs to consider the expense to the witness for turning over information. In order to fix this problem, courts should consider keeping witnesses identities anonymous. Moreover, in situations where the testimony of a witness is essential, the court should take more precautions in terms of limiting the spectators and technology allowed in the court while witnesses are present. Limiting the exposure of witness will likely help counteract the dynamic use of technology in witness intimidation, and therefore further compel witnesses to help serve justice by feeling secure in cooperating with authorities.

  1. See generally Deborah C. England, Intimidating a Witness, Criminal Defense Lawyer, (last visited Sept. 23, 2016), http://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/intimidatingAwitness.cfm
  2. Id.
  3. Don Thompson, Inmates Harass Victims Via Facebook, yahoo! neWs (Nov. 21, 2011), https://www.yahoo.com/news/inmates-harass-victims-via-facebook-081733468.html
  4. Kevin Davis, Witness harassment has gone digital, and the justice system is playing catch-up, ABA JOURNAL (Aug. 1, 2013), http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/witness_harassment_has_gone_digital_and_the_justice_system_is_playing_catch
  5. Id.
  6. Id.
  7. Id.
  8. Id.
  9. Deborah C. England, Intimidating a Witness, Criminal Defense Lawyer, (last visited Sept. 23, 2016)

Author: Owen Campbell

Owen Campbell is a 2L law student at Rutgers Law School. Prior to coming to law school, Owen graduated from Temple University in 2013 and began working at Weitz & Luxenburg P.C. in New York City. He remained there until beginning law school in 2015. Currently 25 years old, Owen enjoys playing and watching sports, reading, and traveling in his spare time.