Sometimes sharing the minutiae of your life with the world, can have unexpected benefits:
The message on Rodney Bradford’s Facebook page, posted at 11:49 a.m. on Oct. 17, asked where his pancakes were. The words were typed from a computer in his father’s apartment in Harlem.
At the time, the sentence, written in street slang, was just another navel-gazing, cryptic Facebook status update — meaningless to anyone besides Mr. Bradford. But when Mr. Bradford, 19, was arrested the next day as a suspect in a robbery at the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn, where he lives, the words took on greater importance. They became his alibi.
His defense lawyer, Robert Reuland, told a Brooklyn assistant district attorney, Lindsay Gerdes, about the Facebook entry, which was made at the time of the robbery. The district attorney subpoenaed Facebook to verify that the words had been typed from a computer at an apartment at 71 West 118th Street in Manhattan, the home of Mr. Bradford’s father. When that was confirmed, the charges were dropped.
“This is the first case that I’m aware of in which a Facebook update has been used as alibi evidence,” said John G. Browning, a lawyer in Dallas who studies social networking and the law. “We are going to see more of that because of how prevalent social networking has become.”
With more people revealing the details of their lives online, sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are providing evidence in legal battles.
Up to now, social networking activity has mostly been used as prosecutorial evidence, Mr. Browning said. He cited a burglary case in September in Martinsburg, Pa., in which the burglar used the victim’s computer to log on to Facebook and forgot to log off. The police followed the digital trail to Jonathan G. Parker, 19, who was arrested.
As part of his defense, a suspect in an Indiana murder case, Ian J. Clark, claimed he was not the kind of man who could kill his girlfriend’s child. But remarks he was found to have posted on MySpace left him vulnerable to character examination, Mr. Browning said, contributing to his conviction and a sentence of life in prison without parole.
In civil cases, too, online communications have helped strengthen evidence, especially in divorce cases, where they are often used as proof of cheating.
And postings by a probationary sheriff’s deputy, Brian Quinn, 26, of Marion County, Fla., on his MySpace page led to his firing in June 2006 for “conduct unbecoming an officer.”
Such cases are becoming more prevalent in part because Congress in 2006 mandated changes to the federal rules of civil procedure, expanding the acceptance of electronically stored information as evidence.
With the use of a Facebook update as an alibi, such communications may also be used to prove innocence, Mr. Browning said.