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Witness intimidation on social media: Law enforcement's growing challenge

Threatening people or posting their photos on Facebook and Instagram is the latest method of intimidating witnesses to keep them from testifying. Rolf Vennenbrnd / EPA file

When news broke last Friday that there was an Instagram account devoted exclusively to ratting out witnesses to crimes across Philadelphia, social media experts barely blinked an eye.

“It’s absolutely not surprising to me. People are taking pictures of witnesses, they’re posting them online, and they’re doing it specifically for witness intimidation,” said Bradley Shear, a Bethesda, Md., attorney who specializes in social media law, adding that both Facebook and Twitter are also part of the growing trend. “And it’s only going to increase with frequency. People have to be so careful with where they are, who is taking pictures of them.”

While intimidating witnesses isn’t new, social media is the latest vehicle by which to do so.

“Witness intimidation has long been a part of the challenge of using criminal informants in our justice system,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Social media and the online exchange of information have changed many of the ways we think about law enforcement and crime control, and this is one of the important ways.”

The account on the photo-sharing site — called “rats215” — had identified more than 30 witnesses since February, and had posted pictures, police statements and testimony, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The account has since been disabled. But it’s just the latest example of witnesses encountering threatening messages on social networks or being photographed in courtrooms and later having their pictures show up online.

Last month, a Buffalo, N.Y., drug defendant was convicted of witness intimidation and tampering with a witness after the witness’ testimony and statements were posted to Facebook on the eve of his trial. In July, two Louisiana men were indicted for threatening a federal witness via Instagram; each face maximum sentences of 30 years in prison if convicted.

The following month, in Philadelphia — where the District Attorney’s office says witness intimidation is at a “near epidemic” level — a 20-year-old man was sentenced to up to 23 months in prison for Facebook posts in which he threatened witnesses, including posts showing a witness’ statement and status updates that said “Kill all rats.” A Pottstown, Pa., woman is currently serving a two- to five-year sentence for using Facebook to intimidate a witness of an attempted murder by her boyfriend.

There is even an online database, whosarat.com, where members can post and view photos of thousands of criminal informants.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia police made an arrest in connection to the “rats215” account: Nasheen Anderson, a 17-year-old of East Germantown, Pa., was charged with witness intimidation and terroristic threats for labeling victims as rats on Twitter. The account posted information about a 2012 shooting in Philadelphia, according to the District Attorney’s office; a police spokesperson said the same information that appeared on the Twitter account showed up on the rats215 Instagram account.

“I don’t care how old you are, if you intimidate a witness in this city, I’m going to come after you,” District Attorney Seth Williams warned in a press release on Wednesday.

Digital witness intimidation has created new problems for law enforcement and for courts, experts say.

“It used to be that the control of information in the criminal justice was an important way that we kept the system regular and safe, and now social media and the Internet have really destroyed the government’s ability to control information in cases. It’s opened up all kinds of possibilities that are challenging the old rules of criminal justice and criminal procedure,” Natapoff said.

Efforts to combat social media witness intimidation have increased around the nation in recent years, but more laws are likely, Natapoff said.

Already, some courthouses have gone so far as to ban cellphones. Cook County, Ill., where gang intimidation has been a persistent problem, passed a law banning mobile phones from their criminal courthouses this past April.

Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans said he pushed for the ban, which includes laptops and tablets, because cellphone pictures and videos have led to the murders of witnesses in Cook County.

“The capabilities [of a smartphone] – it’s a mini-computer,” Shear, the social media lawyer, said. “If you’re doing anything in public, you might be recorded. Unfortunately with Google Glass and some of the products its competitors are coming out with, the problem is only going to get worse.”

But limiting cellphones poses problems of its own: Members of the media and lawyers often need their cellphones in courtrooms. Cook County’s ban excludes reporters, judges, law enforcement officers, jurors, domestic violence advocates and counselors, and those seeking an order of protection.

Justice Department officials have also called in recent years for federal courts to make it harder for the public to access court documents online as witness intimidation on social media has become more prevalent, and as whosarat.com has outed more than 5,000 witnesses who cooperated with the government.

Law enforcement deals with online intimidation in the same way they deal with threats in person: They investigate who is making the threat, but also reach out to the platforms where the threat is taking place, which often involves court orders.

In Philadelphia, where witness intimidation, both online and otherwise, has resulted in a record number of cases being dismissed, District Attorney Williams went to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in February to ask for the removal of a Facebook page allegedly soliciting the killing of a witness.

“Sometimes the companies are a little more flexible, if it appears to be an imminent danger or an imminent threat,” Shear said. In general, however, social media platforms are still trying to figure out “how much they can balance protecting their users’ privacy vs. helping out law enforcement,” he said.

While social media poses great risks for witnesses, it can also be an opportunity for the criminal justice system, Natapoff said.

“Social media is one of those double-edged swords,” she said. “On the one hand, it can spread the dangers of intimidation and fear and even certain sorts of crime, but it also provides the basis for new forms of social safety, of sharing information, of protecting victims, of providing information about crimes that we didn’t know before.”