Should MySpace Friends & Photos Be Enough Evidence To Convict Someone Of Criminal Gang Activity
from the guilty-by-myspace-association dept
Gangs and gang violence may be a serious problem in some areas, but does that mean we should make people guilty based on very loose associations? Venkat Balasubramani has a post about a recent appeals court ruling in Ohio, in which some defendants were convicted of “participation in criminal gang activity,” almost entirely based on their MySpace friends and photographs. The police officers initially testified that gang members were using social networking sites more and more frequently, and then went full on charging guilt by association:
Officer Criss . . . noted [defendants] were friends on MySpace. Mr. Owens was pictured in two photographs on Mr. McCraney’s MySpace page. In one of the photographs, Mr. Owens was wearing all black and he was standing with several other people who were wearing all black, or black and red. Further, several of the people in the photograph were displaying gang hand signs. The other photograph from Mr. McCraney’s page depicted [defendants, along with] a known gang member.
Officer Criss also discussed photographs taken from Mr. Owens’ own MySpace page. One of the photographs depicted Mr. Owens in a red hat and a fur coat. Officer Criss said this was significant because red is a gang color and the fur coat is a status symbol in the gang community. In addition, Mr. Owens’ gold teeth were also alluded to as being a status symbol. Another photograph from Mr. Owens’ MySpace page depicted Mr. Owens holding a large sum of cash and wearing red and black clothing. Further, dollar signs are superimposed all over the photograph. Again Officer Criss stated that red and black are associated with the Bloodline gangs and the money symbols and the display of a large amount of cash represented that Mr. Owens was able to get large sums of money.
This was pretty much the crux of the evidence of gang activity. The court also heard that one of the defendants had a previous conviction for dealing marijuana, and the police noted that “gangs primarily are involved with the sale of drugs,” but no other evidence was used to tie that conviction to any actual gang activity. That seems like incredibly thin evidence, but the court decided that it was sufficient to prove criminal gang activity.
One judge dissented, noting just how thin the evidence appeared to be:
Essentially, the majority’s decision allows one to conclude that someone actively participates in a criminal gang if that person has committed theft or drug crimes in the past, wears one color associated with a gang, and associates with people who are in a gang or who make gang hand signs. I also find it troubling that the majority suggests that despite the lack of evidence concerning the significant indicators of participation in gang activity, the gap in the evidence is satisfied simply because an officer stated that he believed Mr. Owens actively participated in a criminal gang.
That judge also details how even the thin evidence was even thinner than the court suggested. It noted that none of the photographs with gang members even appeared on this guy’s own MySpace website, but on another’s. And he wasn’t seen making the gang hand signs in any of them — others are. In other words, if you’re in a photo on a social network with people making gang signs and wearing some rather common colors that are also associated with a gang, you can be convicted of criminal gang activities. That doesn’t seem right.