Feds use Facebook to collect crime evidence
Along with wiretaps, undercover drug buys, cooperating witnesses and other evidence typically seen in major conspiracy cases, federal prosecutors are scouring the Facebook pages of defendants for proof in a potential death penalty trial.
In an example of how monitoring social media pages has become part of the law enforcement toolbox, the FBI recently filed a search warrant affidavit to examine the private details from Facebook pages of three men facing trial in U.S. District Court in Washington in a murder and drug case.
According to the affidavit, one of the defendants may have even been updating his Facebook status from inside the D.C. Jail with a contraband cellphone, posting messages such as “Life sucks right now.”
William Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment on the affidavit because the case is active, adding that “we typically do not discuss investigative techniques.”
Attorneys for the three defendants whose Facebook accounts were the subject of the affidavit — Timothy Moon, Randolph Danson and Mark Pray — said they had not seen the document and declined to discuss any details in the filing, which was obtained by The Washington Times through federal court records.
But, in general, it’s become “extremely common” for law enforcement to view social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace as evidence in conspiracy cases, said Mr. Pray’s attorney, James G. Connell III. “We see social media evidence in conspiracy cases all the time now,” he said.
Mr. Pray is the only one of the three defendants named in the affidavit who could face the death penalty. The Justice Department is weighing whether to seek capital punishment against him and two other defendants in the case, neither of whom is named in the affidavit.
Mr. Pray, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of running a violent drug gang based in the Barry Farm neighborhood of Southeast Washington. Among the crimes he is accused of is the killing two years ago of Crystal Washington. Prosecutors say she was shot to keep her from testifying in a D.C. drug case.
In the affidavit, the FBI says it began the investigation into what authorities dubbed the “Pray Organization” about four months after the Washington slaying. Listening in on Mr. Pray’s cellphone conversations after getting court approval, authorities said Mr. Pray got a call from a woman in March 2010 who told him she could see everything he was writing on Facebook.
In another conversation, the woman asked what Mr. Pray changed his name to on Facebook. After initially denying he had an account, he later said, “I changed my name to Kaiser Sorsay,” the affidavit stated.
“Kaiser Sorsay” was listed as “friends” on Facebook with accounts linked to two other defendants in the case, Mr. Moon and Mr. Danson, authorities say.
The FBI document said, based on the public information posted on the Facebook pages, “there is probable cause to believe that this Facebook account was used for communication in furtherance of the charged conspiracies.”
One post has mention of how somebody named “Spitz” was “watering down the pack.” The FBI said that referred to a method of adding agents to PCP to get more but less-potent narcotics.
The FBI affidavit also said Mr. Danson’s Facebook page is associated with the user name “Randy Ladiescallmesmooth Danson” and included eight status updates after Mr. Danson’s March 11, 2010, arrest and incarceration by the D.C. Department of Corrections.
“Life sucks right how [. . . ]” was one of the posts from October, according to the affidavit.
“It is presently unclear where these Facebook status updates originated; however, the Facebook website states that several of the updates were sent ‘via Mobile Web,’ which indicates that they originated from a cellular device (which Danson may have unlawful access to inside the D.C. Jail),” the affidavit said.
Three days before their arrests, a response to a status update on Mr. Danson’s Facebook page from user “Kaiser Sorsay” also stated, “I told fb this morning that the streets don’t love me. Jumpers came like I had a bomb strapped to me yesterday.”
Jumpers is a reference to “jump out” or vice police officers patrolling around the Barry Farm neighborhood, the FBI said in the affidavit.
According to court records, U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciloa approved the FBI search warrant on March 30. The same day, the FBI emailed the warrant to Facebook. The company responded by emailing three files on April 18.
While it’s unclear what information Facebook provided in the case, court records show authorities were searching for, among other things, all postings, videos, contact information, photos, private messages, “friend” requests and “information about the user’s access and use of Facebook applications.”
A spokesman for Facebook in an email statement on April 27 said the company “works with law enforcement to the extent required by law and where appropriate to ensure the safety of Facebook users.”
“Our goal is to respect the balance between law enforcement’s need for information and the privacy rights of our users, and as a responsible company, we adhere to the letter of the law,” spokesman Simon Axten said.
The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Samuelson Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley recently obtained through open-records requests a company document describing how Facebook handles inquiries from law enforcement. The groups also obtained other social media companies’ law enforcement policies.
“For requests pursuant to formal compulsory legal process issued under U.S. law, we will provide records as required by the law,” the Facebook guidelines state.
In addition, the company also considers “emergency requests” that “will only receive a response if we believe in good faith that serious bodily harm or death of a person may occur if we do not respond quickly,” according to the document.