Criminal Law

Technology Takes a Bite Out of Crime

  • Social networking sites and handheld gadgets have all sorts of uses
  • Their world-wide and ever present reach helps people use them to fight crime
  • The rules for "sooner or later" when it comes to catching criminals may be changing


By now you know how popular social networking sites and handheld gadgets are. People are online and connected everywhere we go. They're used for all sorts of things aside from entertainment and work. For instance, consumers often use them to log complaints and reviews about stores, restaurants, and products they buy and use.

Now, these sites and gadgets are finding a new use.

Fighting Crime

Perhaps because of their world-wide and ever-present reach, giving users instant access to millions of people across the globe, social networking sites and handheld gadgets are being used to fight crime. For example:

Tracking Down a Killer

In Philadelphia, Matt Novak's family turned to MySpace for help finding the people who shot and killed him in 2008. He was killed while trying to help a friend whose car was stranded. He was last seen getting into a car with three men.

Since then, Facebook, another popular social networking site, has been added to the hunt. Combined with face-to-face efforts, dozens of tips and clues have been logged, and the Novaks have raised $20,000 in reward money.

Tripping Themselves

Apple's wildly popular iPhone may be a criminal's worst enemy. For instance, police officers in Chicago get excited when an iPhone is involved in a crime or found at a crime scene. Why? Because they store a wealth of information about the user. For instance:

  • Emails you send and receive are stored on the phone, even if you delete them
  • It stores your use of mapping applications (or "apps")
  • Photos taken on the phone and posted online may include GPS coordinates of where the picture was taken and maybe  the phone's serial number

Want more? In San Francisco, it took police only 10 minutes to nab the guy who ripped an iPhone out of a victim's hand and rode off on a bicycle. The phone was using a real-time GPS app that led police straight to him.

Good Guys Gone Bad

Police officers and others sometimes make bad choices and mistakes, and often technology is there to make sure justice is served. For instance, on New Years Day 2009, a transit cop in Oakland shot and killed an unarmed man at a train station. The shooting was filmed by several witnesses with cell phones and other handheld devices. The video was posted to YouTube, which led to a huge public uproar.

The officer was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Also in California, a bystander used his cell phone to record an altercation between a security guard at a popular clothing store and a deaf customer. The video, which was posted to YouTube, shows the guard wrestling the customer to the ground and putting him in a choke hold. He was suspected of shoplifting.

The store issued a statement explaining it doesn't condone the use excessive force by its employees and that it's investigating the matter. It's unclear if the customer will file a lawsuit against the store or security guard.

The Take Away?

What's all this mean? What should you learn from these stories? If nothing else, it should reinforce the fact that crime doesn't pay. Sooner or later criminals get caught, and with today's technology, it may be much sooner.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do police need a warrant to search a phone or other device found at a crime scene?
  • Can video taken by a handheld device be used as evidence in a criminal case? What about a civil case, like a personal injury lawsuit?
  • Can I get into any legal trouble if I make an honest mistake when posting a tip about a crime online?
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