Cops find social media an effective tool to catch criminals

Cortez Gosa posted photos of guns on Facebook.
Cortez Gosa posted photos of guns he had on Facebook, saying "What you thought I sold em all?!!" Gosa's Facebook photos were noted in the criminal complaint.
Screen grab via Facebook

Raheem Watkins wasn't supposed to touch guns, and he insisted that he was in a "movement," not a gang, after being charged in May with illegal gun possession.

Watkins, however, apparently forgot about the incriminating photos on Instagram showing him holding two guns and allegedly flashing gang signs. The pictures helped prosecutors pull together a conspiracy indictment against Watkins, 21, and four others in an alleged scheme to channel weapons to Minnesota gangsters.

Watkins was the latest to discover law enforcement's increasing use of social media to catch and prosecute suspects. Combing Facebook, Twitter and other sites is standard procedure now for police as they pursue cases. Some suspects make it easy when they post pictures of their law breaking or incriminate themselves with their online words — or sometimes music.

Music played a role last December when police arrested a suspected gang member at an alleged "stash house" for drugs and guns in north Minneapolis.

Lamont Charles McGee, a 28-year-old rapper known as "Moe Man," is also part of a violent street gang called the 1-9 Block Dipset, according to charges filed against him.

Police accused McGee and others of stockpiling guns and ammunition to retaliate for the death of fellow gang member Tyrone Washington, whose street name was "Crack" and who was shot and killed at the Epic nightclub last November.

As "Moe Man," police said McGee posted a song called "Fa Crack" on Soundcloud a few weeks after Washington's death as a threat of vengeance against Washington's shooter.

The song was used as evidence in the criminal complaint, though the case never went to trial. McGee was already headed to prison for a previous illegal gun possession conviction, so the Hennepin County Attorney's office declined to prosecute him.

Video from Moe Man's YouTube account
Lamont Charles McGee, a rapper who goes by the name Moe Man, posted a music video that includes images of large amounts of money.
Screen grab via YouTube

It's become more common to use music, video and pictures posted online by a suspect in criminal prosecutions, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said. Pictures are especially helpful in prosecuting felons or other people legally barred from possessing guns, he added.

"When you're talking about prohibited persons and felons in possession, yeah, we do get some solid convictions of people putting pictures of themselves with a gun up on Facebook," Freeman said.

Those incriminating pictures and videos aren't always posted online by suspected offenders.

Last month, a bystander recorded video of two teenage girls beating and robbing another girl near Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis and then posted it online.

"Another kid that saw it on social media, brought it to one of our school resource officers and says, 'Hey, did you see this?'" said Minneapolis police commander Bruce Folkens.

The video helped officers identify the suspects and make arrests. The girls, ages 14 and 16, were charged with aggravated robbery.

Just because something is posted online doesn't mean police can automatically use it as evidence. Investigators often have to make a case to a judge before getting their hands on pictures and video, Folkens said. "We go and bring our information to a judge or a magistrate and ask permission from the courts through a search warrant or a court order to say 'can we look at this stuff?' and 'can we get copies of it?'"

When investigators want user information or access to material on Facebook, they have to send warrants to the company's law enforcement compliance department in Palo Alto, California.

Criminal suspects have found other social media sites to communicate with each other and police officers are trying to catch up. It's something of a technological arms race waged between law enforcement officers and people who are trying to avoid law enforcement officers and it can be hard to keep up with all the latest social media, said Folkens, a 26-year police veteran.

"When we hire young patrol officers, they're sometimes our best source because they're much more in tune than somebody like myself who's been around a long time and technology is slowly running away from me," he said.

Folkens said he also watches the sites his children use to keep up on the latest thing.

He and other law enforcement officials admit they are a bit baffled about why some people don't apparently think police will find incriminating photos posted of them online.

Suspects, though, frequently incriminate themselves during jailhouse phone conversations, even though there's a sign next to the phone announcing that phone calls are being recorded, Freeman noted.

Sometimes there's no need for a warrant.

Criminal defense attorney Fred Goetz said he's seen cases where law enforcement officers get an informant who is part of a suspect's circle of friends to give them the material voluntarily, which makes it fair game.

"I think one could argue either way that if you have privacy settings, you don't mean to share it with the general public," Goetz said. "On the other hand, if you have 300, 400, 500 friends, is that really private data anymore that would require the Fourth Amendment protections?"

Evidence gathered from social media sites make prosecutors' cases hard to beat, he added.

Social media sites can also be used to try and keep evidence out of criminal cases.

In February, 22-year-old Marlon Rashaad Robertson, an admitted gang member charged with murder, managed to get un-redacted grand jury transcripts out of jail to a friend who posted them on Facebook. The transcripts didn't include names of witnesses, but Hennepin County Attorney's Office officials fear some may be too afraid to testify against Robertson.

The law has not caught up with social media and other technology used to share and gather personal information and even law-abiding citizens should be aware that their personal information is being collected by all sorts of organizations and can be used against them, said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Chapter of the ACLU.

"Do you want to live in a society," Samuleson asked, "where the police and all government agencies actively spy on you, are trying to find out everything they can about you and put it in files?"

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