The Gangs of MySpace: Social Media Evidence in Gang Prosecutions

I talk a lot on this blog about the importance of companies having a social media policy for their employees.  Who knew that street gangs could use the same advice?

“Symbols are an important part of the gang culture,” writes one expert.  “Signs and symbols are used to identify a particular gang or to intimidate and disrespect rival gangs.”  Gang members are not immune to the social networking phenomenon, and they have brought their symbolic speech with them online.  Apparently, though, gangs’ rites of initiation do not yet include reminders not to post incriminating evidence that the 5-0 can later use to prosecute you.

For example, in April 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided James Cole’s appeal from his conviction for participating in a drug-related conspiracy.  Cole was part of a drive-by shooting in Texas on behalf of the national Latin Kings gang, but denied knowing that the gang participated in drug activities.

The Government countered Cole’s claims with evidence from his MySpace page.  There, Cole had: posted photos of himself wearing Latin Kings colors and flashing their signs; listed “drug wars” as one of his personal interests; and posted a music video called “Drug Wars,” complete with lyrics praising the Latin Kings’ participation in said wars.  In a considered understatement, the court concluded that this and other similar evidence could enable jurors to “rationally conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Cole knew of the Latin Kings’ conspiracy to distribute [drugs].”

Another decision out of Texas released on June 29, 2011 reached a similar conclusion.  There, police identified one Rheashad Lott as a member of the Arlington gang “Untamed Gorillas,” or “UTG.”  Among the UTG’s signs are a hand gesture known as “throwing up a U.”  During his prosecution for shooting another person during a gang fight, a detective introduced photos from Lott’s MySpace page that he said showed Lott giving this symbol.

Lott denied the charge, and claimed the gesture was really an “H”–for his hometown of Houston–not a “U.”  The jury didn’t buy it, and the appellate court didn’t blame them.

Not every gang-related image online makes for an open-and-shut case, however.  On June 21, 2011, an appellate court in California rejected police’s attempt to use MySpace evidence to prove that Francisco Lopez had violated the conditions of his probation.  Lopez had been ordered not to wear, possess, or display anything suggesting his affiliation with a gang.  The only credible evidence offered to show that Lopez violated this condition was a couple of photographs from Lopez’s MySpace profile showing him in “typical gang attire” with the logo of “BPG,” or the Brown Pride Gang.

But this time, the pictures were not enough.  The court rejected the idea that one could constitutionally be prohibited from affiliating with a group, even if it called itself a “gang,” unless that prohibition served a rehabilitative purpose.   There was some evidence that BPG members committed crimes, but not enough to satisfy the court that the group was necessarily a “criminal gang.”  Therefore, the court refused to enforce the probation condition.

These are just a sampling of the multitude of criminal cases being decided, in whole or in part, based on evidence from social media.  As often as people from all walks of life get themselves in trouble posting photos they later regret. it’s good to know that at least some of those photos are being used to get violent criminals off the streets.

 

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