Over the course of the year, I have watched with interest (and, I must confess, some concern) as law enforcement agencies throughout the country increase their reliance on social networking services to perform their duties. In particular, I am fascinated with their use of Twitter. Perhaps more than any other social networking service, Twitter has “real” potential as a tool to help police solve crimes, particularly in the area of missing persons and evidence/witness gathering, because it is a “real-time” service.
At the same time, I am disturbed by the same potential that Twitter might have to invade one’s privacy, or be used improperly, especially if wielded by an under-trained or over-eager police officer on the front lines.
Consider this scenario – As part of the holiday driving season in California and elsewhere, police agencies have set up roadblocks to catch those driving under the influence. As usual, these roadblock efforts peak on New Year’s Eve, and then quietly disappear. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these roadblocks are quite effective in reducing the number of alcohol-related deaths. However, as an article from the Seattle Times indicates, young drivers are now using Twitter to inform each other via telephone and handhelds about where the sobriety checkpoints are and how to avoid them. You can link to the Seattle Times article here.
Is it fitting then that the police should make equal use of Twitter to post the names of those individuals who have been arrested for driving while intoxicated? That’s precisely what one Houston-area law enforcement agency plans to do on New Year’s Eve. You can link to the CNet story here discussing these plans. Should such measures become commonplace? After all, police departments have listed at least certain details of arrests in newspapers for many years. However, as a matter of common sense, we can all agree that few individuals read those listings, certainly not in comparison to the large number of Twitter users who might see the name of someone wrongly accused and who is later exonerated.
Another Texas police department, Denton PD, twitters every single arrest, right along with a TwitPic of the person’s mug shot. You can link to the CNet article about this police department here. Mug shots have a strong propensity to be prejudicial to a jury, and I can tell you that they are often excluded from a jury’s consideration in civil matters involving the police, such as police misconduct cases and wrongful arrests. Could tweeting such a picture deprive one of a fair trial?
Perhaps not in every instance, or even in many instances – but then again, we are just at the beginning. Already, the way in which Twitter and other social networking services (Facebook, in particular) are being used by law enforcement covers everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. The most recent example of the “ridiculous” comes from Long Island, NY. There, James A. Roppo, 44, an associate of pop singer Justin Bieber, was arrested on November 20 on felony assault charges after refusing police commands to issue a “tweet” instructing Bieber’s over-zealous teenage fans to disperse from outside a concert hall. Huh? That’s right, he was arrested for not tweeting, and you can link to stories explaining the bizarre incident here and here.
Is the Roppo incident a harbinger of things to come? Could we actually find ourselves arrested because we failed to tweet?