The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Mangel/Craft, No. 703 WDA 2017 (March 15, 2018), holding that the mere fact that a Facebook account in question bore the Defendant’s name, hometown and high school was insufficient to authenticate the online and mobile device chat messages as having been authored by him, absent any contextual clues in the chat messages that identified him as the sender of the messages.
Mangel and Craft were charged with assaulting Cornell at a party. Cornell stated that he did not know Mangel or Craft but, he was able to identify them as a result of being shown Facebook pictures by his family. The Commonwealth filed a Motion in Limine to introduce screenshots of certain pages of a Facebook account for “Tyler Mangel,” consisting of undated online and mobile device “chat” messages. During a hearing on that Motion, the trial Court pressed the Commonwealth’s expert to state with a reasonable degree of certainty that the Defendant Mangel was the person who actually made the posts and that no one else intervened or “grabbed the account.” The Commonwealth’s expert could not do so and the trial Court denied the Motion in Limine, thereby precluding the introduction of the posts.
The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that the trial court applied the incorrect standard and that precluding the evidence substantially hampered the Commonwealth’s prosecution of the case.
The Superior Court first acknowledged that “the question of what proof is necessary to authenticate social media evidence, such as Facebook postings and communications, appears to be an issue of first impression in Pennsylvania.” It began its determination as to what is required to authenticate social media evidence, such as Facebook postings and communications, by first looking to the treatment accorded other types of electronic communications.
In doing so, the Superior Court stated that “e-mails and text messages are documents and subject to the same requirements for authenticity as non-electronic documents generally.” Additionally, it recognized that “electronic writings typically show their source, so they can be authenticated by contents in the same way that a communication by postal mail can be authenticated.”
However, the Superior Court also recognized that the “difficulty that frequently arises in e-mail and text message cases is establishing authorship. Often more than one person uses an e-mail address and accounts can be accessed without permission.” Accordingly, in the majority of courts to have considered the question, “the mere fact that an e-mail bears a particular e-mail address is inadequate to authenticate the identity of the author.”
“Social media evidence presents additional challenges because of the great ease with which a social media account may be falsified, or a legitimate account may be accessed by an imposter.”
Courts therefore demand that “authentication of electronic communications, like documents, requires more than mere confirmation that the number or address belonged to a particular person. Circumstantial evidence, which tends to corroborate the identity of the sender, is required.”
The Superior Court then suggested the process by which social media records and communications can be properly authenticated within the existing framework of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence and Pennsylvania case law.
Initially, authentication social media evidence is to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not there has been an adequate foundational showing of its relevance and authenticity.
“Additionally, the proponent of social media evidence must present direct or circumstantial evidence that tends to corroborate the identity of the author of the communication in question, such as testimony from the person who sent or received thecommunication, or contextual clues in the communication tending to reveal the identity of the sender.”
“The mere fact that an electronic communication, on its face, purports to originate from a certain person’s social networking account is generally insufficient, standing alone, to authenticate that person as the author of the communication.”
With that process in mind, the Superior Court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the Commonwealth’s Motion in Limine in the case at hand. Here, even though the Facebook account in question bore Mangel’s name, hometown and high school, there were no contextual clues in the chat messages that identified Mangel as the sender of those messages.
DISCLAIMER – The information contained in this article is for general guidance on the subject matter only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on the specific facts involved. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, and the inherent hazards of electronic communication, there may be delays, omissions or inaccuracies in information in this article. Case summaries are primarily excerpted directly from the decisions authored by the Courts. The decisions are cited and linked and the reader is encouraged to read the entire decision. Accordingly, the information in this article is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not herein engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice and services. As such, it should NOT be used as a substitute for consultation with a McMahon Winters Soto-Ortiz Law Firm attorney. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should always consult with a McMahon Winters Soto-Ortiz Law Firm attorney.