In February 2014, the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Victims Unit received a tip from Sumter School District about alleged inappropriate conduct between a middle school teacher and a 13-year-old student. The investigation led to the arrest of 31-year-old Elizabeth Marie Moss, a former Chestnut Oaks Middle School teacher, who was charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minor.
The investigation, originated when police obtained Facebook messages between Moss and the student that were deemed inappropriate, is just one example of how social media has had an impact the way law enforcement conducts its investigations today.
“It was definitely one of the major factors in the case,” said Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis. “It’s becoming one of the most-used resources in our law-enforcement division.” Dennis said social media is used today to help investigate hundreds of cases. The variety of crimes solved using social media range from stolen property to homicide. A YouTube video, for example, was obtained by local investigators during a January 2013 intimidation case against then-29-year-old Rodregiz Anthony Cole, who was accused of threatening two judges in a rap video he posted.
With homicide cases, there have been instances in which suspects have the tendency to talk about cases through online messages, according to Dennis. This often led to the suspect admitting involvement, thinking it is safe to post incriminating information in an online instant message. Many times, suspects upload pictures of stolen items on social media and attempt to sell them, giving law enforcement enough probable cause to seize them.
Social media has also been a reliable method for releasing information to the public. Sumter Police Department has used sites such as Facebook to ask the public for information needed to help with criminal investigations, such as searching for a burglary suspect or information about a suspicious person seen during a shooting. “We can disseminate information quickly to the public that they need to know about a case or a matter of public safety, but our investigators can also utilize the technology to track information, receive tips and verify or debunk information that we receive,” said Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark.
Obtaining messages, videos and pictures from a social media site is not simple, as privacy laws force law enforcement to obtain search warrants in order to confiscate the material. The nature of the crime determines how much information can be gathered under a single subpoena.
“It’s kind of two-fold,” said Senior Investigator Darlene Dellinger with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. “Sometimes, you just need subscriber stuff. Other times, you’re going to need more in a case where you know the crime’s been committed, and you know something’s there. With anything that is private, we will make sure to follow the law to obtain it.” With the Moss case, however, law enforcement could simply receive permission from the student’s parents to gain access to the inbox messages on Facebook.
“People think that those are private communications and that they can’t be seen, so they feel more free to discuss inside of an inbox message as opposed to a post,” said Dellinger, who is also an officer with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “Just when you think it’s private, it generally isn’t.”
Dennis said that once a warrant has been issued for an individual’s account or online messages, that individual’s personal computer is confiscated by law enforcement in order to conduct the investigation.
“a haven for pedophiles and sexual predators”
As an officer with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, Dellinger conducts her investigations using undercover chatrooms and file-sharing networks. While monitoring inappropriate contact on social media is not her main focus, she does receive social media alerts involving inappropriate content uploaded within Sumter County.
“I look at it as an opportunity to catch the boogeyman, that bad guy who’s out there hurting our sweet innocent little babies — and possibly cost them their innocence that they will never get back,” Dellinger said. “What you do worry about is the graphic nature of what you see. What keeps me going is my faith.”
Dellinger said the youngest victim she has had the displeasure of reporting was a 3-year-old child who was videotaped being sexually assaulted by the perpetrator, who would post a video of the sexual assault through online applications for the gratification of others.
The job comes with its share of difficulties, such as prosecuting individuals who post erotic images onto a social-networking site because no sexual activity has been committed just by posting a nude photo online. Dellinger said the task force is working to push legislation to make nude photography part of prosecuting child pornography cases.
“A normal defense in this case would be that it is ‘art,’” Dellinger said. “I don’t see any artistic value in looking at a 3-year-old that’s exposed and laid out with her private body parts showing for the world to see.”
While social media plays a big part in uncovering Internet crimes, it’s difficult to monitor everyone’s Internet activity. However, there has been some talk among some of the bigger social-media companies about doing more to prevent obscene material from being posted, according to Dellinger.
“Social media is here to stay,” she said. “(The companies) realize that it has become a haven for pedophiles and sexual predators. It’s part of our culture now, and we have to find a way to make it less accessible for those types of people.”
Keeping up with “fads”
With more and more social media apps being developed, law enforcement strives to keep up with what’s becoming the most popular method for people to communicate through the Internet. Roark said law enforcement across the country needs to evolve with technology if it hopes to keep up with the newest sources of social media.
“More and more, we’re seeing that agencies throughout the country are using social media as an investigative tool,” Roark said. “For now, agencies are looking at what works for them, learning from problems they encounter and sharing that information with others. We’re doing the same here.”
After only hearing about it, Dellinger has received complaints within the past several weeks involving several teenagers receiving pornographic material through their accounts on an instant-messaging site called Kik, one of the newer social media apps. That app includes a feature that displays pictures and videos for only 30 seconds, which can make it difficult for law enforcement to obtain obscene videos posted on the site.
Talking with teenagers has been a reliable method in finding out what sites are popular, Dellinger said, which is how she first learned about Kik.
“Nine times out of 10, the kids know about it before any adult does, and it goes viral with them long before the adults even catch wind of it,” she said. “There is just so much stuff out there.”
According to Dellinger, resources provided by the national Crimes Against Children Task Force help law enforcement communicate with each other in learning about new social-media companies, what their legal processes are, their efforts in obtaining search warrants, etc.
One of these resources is a website called NetSmartz, where teens and adults can view video messages and information that address Internet safety. Any individual who wishes to express a concern with a social media site can send an email through the website.