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.

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Comments on “Should MySpace Friends & Photos Be Enough Evidence To Convict Someone Of Criminal Gang Activity”

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37 Comments
harbingerofdoom (profile) says:

while i do not agree that in and of itself pictures of someone hanging out with known gang members is not enough to convict them of criminal activity, the dissenting judge is definitely wearing some rose colored glasses.

sorry dissenting judge, but yes, if you hang with known members, dress like known members, make the handsigns like known members you ARE a member of that gang (or else you are going to be very beat up and likely dead very soon).
add to that if all the above are true and then you toss in the added bonus of committing theft and/or drug crimes in the past? ahh drrrrrrrrrr!

now, does that mean you can convict them of anything in the absence of real evidence to show they were involved in actual criminal activity? absolutely not. but lets not be all pollyanna about it huh?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

You see not always something that quacks like a duck and walks like a duck is actually a duck.

I know people who don’t drink but all her friends are alcoholic, that makes her a drunk bitch?

Hanging out with dubious figures is a sure thing to get in trouble because most people don’t care to differentiate between them but the law is different it should be used in the last instance because it is so harsh and unforgiving and it needs a higher bar.

trilobug says:

I wouldn't tatoo my face either.

To be honest, if you went to High School in LA depending on the neighborhood, there was/is a very real chance you would get shot for wearing a blue bandanna. It has gotten better, but in the 90s it was bad. Bandannas are gang attire, much different than having another garment by that color (though not too much if it is a solid) – BTW, let me guess it was one of those blue with white pattern on it – the quintessential The only exception I make is if you are female or have long hair, because then there is actual reason to wear it but if you are rockin’ it like Tupac you are looking for unwanted often dangerous attention.

This is a bad ruling, and I agree with your VP, but that’s a school not a court of law.

interval (profile) says:

Re:

Two problems (AND why it doesn’t change my conclusion); we are guaranteed the right of association and the right of free speech by the constitution. I don’t care if he was dressing like the Taliban or flashing instructions on making an atomic bomb, people (like average_joe here) are way too ready to forget that we have a constitution and don’t seem all that bothered that it has been repeatedly ignored the last few years.

rooben (profile) says:

Re:

First, Mr. Owen was not seen throwing gang signs.
Second, if you live in the inner city/urban areas, its pretty much impossible NOT to hang out, or have friends who are associated with gangs. Your childhood friends, relatives, etc all might end up joining gangs; living in these areas, one doesn’t just stop associating with people because of that (esp for self protection – you don’t want to seem like a person who might be willing to snitch).

Third, if you live in an area controlled by a certain gang, you also must not wear colors of another gang, or will face frequent beatings etc. The color of safety – Black, or, include the gang’s color with your other clothing…it doesn’t make you part of the gang, but it does make you blend in. Never wear green in a red gang area, if you want to live.

This type of law is intentionally left vague, so that not much is needed to convict. There is absolutely no proof whatsoever that this guy had done anything criminal, except to be photographed with gang members, and having a grill.
With that as evidence, just about every rapper right now should be convicted for the same crime.

Joseph says:

I was on a jury

The last time I did jury duty I was on a criminal case that used photos from FaceBook as evidence. These photos included hand signs, but not gang colors.

In this case the photos were used by the defense, who pulled them off of FaceBook.

It was a rape trial. Not an anonymous attacker, but a case of friendship maybe going too far and ending in a sexual relationship. The alleged victim claimed to have been raped in the afternoon, and the photos showed her in a bar that same night partying and smiling and mugging for the camera while making sexual hand signals. She was hardly acting like someone who had just been raped.

When it was time for the defense to cross-examine her, she got an “oh crap” look on her face when she was presented with the photos and asked about them.

There was other evidence of course, but the photos had a big effect on the jury.

harbingerofdoom (profile) says:

Re:

i was basing that on the quote of the judge, not the actions of this particular person… so, no… it doesnt really change my outlook much.
and, keep in mind, im still saying that none of that is enough to convict anyone of anything.

the only time associating with “known” criminals is an issue (to my knowledge at least) is when you are already on parole.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

>> while i do not agree that in and of itself pictures of someone hanging out with known gang members is not

Did you intend for that “not” at the end to be there?

In any case, who defines “member”? Perhaps to be recognized as a member by most of those who consider themselves to be in the gang you have to pass a test that includes mugging on three different occasions.

This person might have liked the social component of this (a wanna-be member) or feels pressured to gain the favor of this particular group.

I agree that without more evidence either the law was misapplied or there is a violation of free speech/association.

PS: the prosecutor might want to pressure this person to perhaps open up and reveal more information about the gang or maybe wants to convince this person to stay away from the gang.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re:

Hanging out with ‘dubious figures’ should not be anywhere near enough to arrest someone for. It’s like if you hang out with people who are homosexuals, you are automatically deemed as being a homosexual.

Or hanging out with a pedosexual, you are automatically deemed as being that yourself.

This ruling is going WAY WAY WAY over the line, to be blunt.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re:

He doesn’t have any right to pressure this person, Anonymous Coward (living up to your name here). If he does that, that is abuse of prosecutorial power, and he should be stomped on for doing that.

All of this is basically coming from our illegalization of the drug trade in the first place. If we would legalize it and regulate it, most of the problems with gangs, the Mafia, etc. would disappear.

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