Webinar presenter Adam Leath answered a number of your questions after his presentation, The Use of Social Media to Investigate Animal Crime. Here are just a few of his responses.
Audience Question: Will my personal phone have to be seized during an investigation if I use my personal phone to gain information from Facebook or Instagram?
Adam Leath: Well as I outlined earlier, Aaron, you know it’s definitely something you should be consulting with law enforcement and your prosecutor on your specific jurisdiction. But if it is readily consumable information, it’s a public access account, anyone with an internet connection whether that is a mobile device or a computer, that information is not unique to your device it could be accessed anywhere. In that situation, I wouldn’t see that there will be a need for your own personal phone to be put in any type of evidence because it’s not accessing information that is not currently available to everyone else.
Audience Question: Do we need a warrant to place a GPS locator on a vehicle?
Adam Leath: That is very jurisdiction-specific. I would say that in a vast majority of cases the answer is yes. I’ve seen some very rare exceptions to that but you absolutely would need to be consulting with your local prosecutor. But if the question is do I need a warrant, the likely answer is going to be yes. If you have time to get it, there is always a good reason to get one and make sure that you have all your bases covered. But with GPS trackers I can only think of maybe one instance where I saw a jurisdiction not have to get a warrant in order to utilize it.
Audience Question: Our main focus is on dogfighting, but can the same techniques be used for cockfighters as well?
Adam Leath: Yes, there are a number of publicly consumable profile accounts that describe every type of cockfighting, dogfighting, hoarding, puppy mills, and rescue groups. There’s all sorts of things that an investigator would need to be looking into on social media. But I would say that the best way to start is going to be with any investigation, identify who it is that you’re working with and what information can you find about them. It should really be a tool that every investigator utilizes just to gain background information on the suspects you’re working with and cockfighting is a great example of that. Even though this example was with dog fighting, cockfighting cases, are very similar in the information that is posted and the discussions taking place on social media.
Audience Question: Is the defendant in your case study typical for dog fighters or is he more of a wannabe?
Adam Leath: Luckily for us and for many of you, your state don’t differentiate between the two whether they are a wannabe or they are on a street fighter or a hobbyist or professional dogfighter. It’s really not based upon the level of engagement but rather the acts that take place. So, I don’t think that this is a, what I would say a typical presentation of anyone who will be considered by many standards to be an organized dogfighter or hobbyist or even a street-level dogfighter, this would be someone who is really starting to gain understanding. Do I think that he would gone on and continue, the answer is yes. I think that he absolutely would have, so I saw this as an opportunity for us to intervene early and potentially have some redirecting of potential activities so that we don’t see someone continue to hone and cultivate their trade and harm additional animals in the process.
Audience Question: Just trying to understand, why he received a suspended sentence and whether or not you can share anything about why or if there are things you or your agency might have been able to do differently to affect the outcome?
Adam Leath: The prosecutor in this case, as with any case, has the ultimate prosecutorial discretion. They have to consider prior criminal history and the egregiousness of the crime. He did not have a violent criminal history and didn’t score prison and in Florida it is done on a point system so you really do have to have a specific threshold of points and previous history before you would even score to prison., I would love for there not to be suspended sentences especially on egregiousness cases like this, I can certainly understand and appreciate where the prosecutor is coming from if they are willing to accept a plea and willing to provide conditions to reduce and eliminate the possibility of this individual continuing to hone their skills. And combine it with the fact that even if they were found guilty on all of this charges, no previous criminal history, I can gain a better appreciation and understanding from where they are coming from but ultimately that’s their decision and the court’s decision.
Audience Question: What is a Jenny?
Adam Leath: A jenny is a device that’s utilized to build or put wind as all the proprietors would describe it. Essentially the dog would run in a circle for a long period of time, building up the cardiovascular endurance of a particular dog which is particularly attractive characteristic because fighting is or does take a great deal of cardiovascular strength. The thought is if they will continue to work them out and continue to build up their cardiovascular endurance they’re more apt to be successful at continuing to engage one another in an actual pit during the fight.
Audience Question: Did you have to do anything special to get the social media introduced as evidence for the court case?
Adam Leath: In our case, it was not something that was needed because the social media at that point garnered the additional step of being able to get all of the other evidence that we utilized. Some of the best evidence was the video of him actually fighting the dogs, his own cellphone video. So, at that point, while yes the social media was incredibly valuable, without it we couldn’t have gotten to that point. But by the time we got the additional evidence we were able to really use that as the crux of what we needed in our particular case. The judge had access to all of those things it was really just a snippet in time to get us to the next step in our investigation.
Audience Question: Can you give examples of misinformation that might have been put out to derail an investigation on social media?
Adam Leath: The best examples are going to be in cases of animal hoarding or in rescue cases where the individual may have started out legitimate but is clearly not providing reasonable standards of care now. So, whether it’s to put out their own post, “Hey animal control was out here or the sheriff’s office they are just taking my animals away and they’re going to euthanized them all, I’m the one that’s really providing care for them, I’m the one who’s just trying to do the best I can and look at that big bad government and all the things that they are trying to do to me. I’m not actually the one that’s going to save them and if it weren’t for me all of them would be on the streets.” Providing sort of public sympathy if you will or beginning to try the case in the court of public opinion rather than allowing that process to go through the criminal justice system. This has the potential to derail the case by providing misinformation or trying to sway public opinion away from the facts. The challenge is that your agency is not going to be able to come back and say, “No, in fact here’s exactly what you took place, here is the evidence that we took from your property.” Because that is not how it works that will come out during the course of the trial or some type of court proceeding. If you are finding that they are putting that information out it’s very difficult to stop that if they get ahead of it or get ahead of you with that information. It can be incredibly problematic because individuals can put a lot of misinformation that can really derail what it is legitimately happening in the investigation.