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Social Media Case Law: Commonwealth v Mangel

January 17, 2020

From Facebook to Instagram, social media has become a way for people to share personal content with friends and family members. As a result, social media posts and pictures have found their way into the courtroom during litigation. 

Yet, using social media as evidence in your case is not easy. It requires precision and experience when gathering and preserving this evidence. The courts require proof of authorship and proper authentication of social media evidence. As such, social media investigations are a critical component of your case

One recent case highlights the need to authenticate social media evidence. In Commonwealth v Mangel, the courts denied the Motion to use Facebook screenshots as evidence. They denied it because the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to prove authorship of the posts.

Understanding the Case

In July 2016, Nathan Cornell filed a criminal complaint against Tyler Mangel. He alleged that Mangel assaulted him at a graduation party. The Commonwealth Of Pennsylvania filed a separate criminal complaint against Matthew Craft for the same offense. The court consolidated these two cases for trial. 

Cornell alleged that Mangel and Craft struck him from behind. They then repeatedly kicked and punched him, causing serious injury. Cornell did not know these individuals but identified them after his family showed him Facebook pictures. 

In May 2017, the Commonwealth filed a Motion in Limine to introduce Facebook screenshots of Mangel’s account. These contained un-dated online and mobile device chat messages made on Facebook. The trial court conducted a hearing on the Motion. The Commonwealth presented testimony from an expert in computer forensics. This expert testified that she validated the account’s authenticity in multiple ways. This included verifying the address, phone number, and screenshots of bloodied hands. 

The court, however, could not clearly establish that Mangel was the one who created the posts on his account. Further, there was not enough evidence to properly authenticate the account. As such, the trial court denied the Commonwealth’s Motion in Limine. 

In 2019, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the trial court’s denial of a Motion in Limine to introduce Facebook posts. 

While there were many factors at play in this case, one of the key issues the court identified was the lack of date or time stamps on the particular photos in question. This issue likely could have been easily resolved had the associated metadata been properly extracted and analyzed.

Another point the court took issue with was that the primary pieces of information used to authenticate the account in question (i.e. name, school and hometown) were insufficient to authenticate. The officer testified that at the time of her investigation, the account she located was the only account located with the name “Tyler Mangel.” However, at the time of the hearing, defense council showed five other profiles with the same name and city.

Authentication of Social Media Required as Proof

Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 901, which is very similar to most states’, requires authentication before the admission of evidence. Online messages, posts and pictures are subject to the same requirements for authenticity as non-electronic documents. 

A plaintiff or defendant must provide evidence of authorship. Establishing authorship is critical to having social media evidence admitted in court. 

In other words, you must do more than prove who owns the social media account. You must provide proof that the person wrote the posts themselves.

While the purpose of this article is not to be critical of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, this case shows that the primary issues with getting this evidence admitted likely could have been resolved if the handling investigator took a few extra steps in the investigation to authenticate and preserve the evidence. At Bosco Legal Services, Inc., we train each investigator and analyst extensively in these issues to ensure court admissibility and address any potential issues ahead of time.

Do You Need a Social Media Investigation for Your Case?

Bosco Legal Services, Inc. has been conducting investigations since 1988, and over the last 10 years has become a recognized leader in Social Media Investigations. We offer our services to law firms, insurance companies and businesses. We gather and use the valuable social media evidence needed to win their cases. Our investigators can then help authenticate this social media data to help defend against inflated injury claims and fraud.

If you need help gathering social media evidence, we are here to help. Contact our social media investigators at (877) 353-8281 to discuss your situation. You can also fill out our online contact form and someone from our office will be in touch with you soon.