Exponential technological advances over the last two decades have completely revolutionized the way we interact with one another.
From text messages to emails to social media – it's all instantaneous. What's more, it's virtually all traceable, and law enforcement has recognized the value of this in the course of conducting their investigations.
For those arrested on Birmingham drug charges, there is almost always some element of digital evidence being used in the case, whether it's cell phone records or global positioning satellite information or communications between accused dealers and alleged clients.
What's more, this evidence is not even necessarily obtained through a warrant. Most of it can be fairly easily obtained with a simple subpoena. The reason why that matters is simple: The standard of proof is lesser for the latter.
In order to obtain a warrant, police have to go to a judge and prove to him or her that there is probable cause for them to access the information, conduct a search, etc. The legal standard of probable cause generally holds that there is a reasonable amount of suspicion, support by circumstances sufficiently strong enough to justify a prudent person's belief that the facts as presented are most likely true.
However, in the case of a subpoena, investigators need only show that the information they seek is relevant to their investigation. It's a much lesser standard of proof, which means it's easier to obtain.
And of course, authorities can use the information obtained in subpoenas to build a case further in order to establish the probable cause necessary to obtain a warrant and dig even deeper.
When it comes to technology, the courts have been pretty favorable to investigators when it comes to access. That was outlined in a recent investigation by journalism non-profit ProPublica.
For example, while authorities usually can't tap your phone calls without a warrant, they can access your telephone records and GPS tracking information with only a subpoena. This information will tell them a lot about what they need to know regarding your activities. It will reveal with whom you are speaking and how often and at what times. It will also tell them where you are when such calls take place.
This kind of information can be highly valuable in the course of a drug trafficking investigation.
Text messages too can be extremely valuable to authorities. If you think your messages are totally private – think again. For messages were traded within the last 180 days, police do need a warrant to justify access. However, older messages can be obtained directly from phone companies with a subpoena and a fee of between $30 and $50.
There is an open question regarding whether police need a warrant to rifle through the contents of your phone if it is confiscated from you during an arrest or detainment. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that, yes, a warrant is needed. However, the California Supreme Court ruled that, no, that's not necessary. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the issue four years ago. We suspect, however, that it will crop up again.
Then there are social media interactions. First of all, it's worth noting that far too many people consider their uploaded photos, videos and status updates to be “private” among those with whom they are friends. The reality is you are fooling yourself if you believe those are the only people who can see your page. First, if an agent logs in with the help of a “friend” of yours, all that information is easily obtained – no formal oversight necessary.
If they can't go that route, though, they can use a subpoena to access your email and IP addresses from Facebook. If they do want to view your private messages, photos and location information, they will have to get a warrant.
If you have been arrested in Birmingham, call defense lawyer Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.