Law Enforcement Sweeping Web To Build Criminal Cases
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent 10 hours testifying before Congress last week in an attempt to explain the behind-the-scenes aspects pertaining to his social media behemoth.
It is the information users themselves are posting for all to see, however, that’s contributing to criminal convictions right here in Chautauqua County.
“With this younger generation, especially, if it wasn’t posted to social media it didn’t happen,” said U.S. Attorney James Kennedy Jr. “Often times there is a treasure trove of evidence.”
A statement that may come off as tongue-in-cheek is in fact the reality that is gathering evidence and building a criminal case in the age of social media. A Facebook post about going to the gym or binge watching a show on Netflix can be harmless enough. Posting an image of illegally purchased weapons in your possession, however, may be used against you in court.
“We have cases in our office based almost entirely on social media posts,” Kennedy told The Post-Journal. “There have been a couple of cases, for example in (Buffalo), involving individuals who were prior convicted federal felons who posted on social media, including metadata in the photos themselves, that reveal a picture of the person possessing a firearm. Obviously, people who have been convicted of a federal crime cannot possess a firearm. So we were able to use those posts.”
A most recent example comes from the U.S. District Court of Western New York involving two Jamestown men.
Ellicott and Jamestown police, in coordination with the FBI, initiated the controlled purchase of cocaine from Tyler Craig Anderson, 27, at his residence at 2256 Willard St. Ext. The investigation began after authorities received complaints from nearby residents and tips from confidential informants. During one of the controlled purchases, law enforcement learned Anderson had a firearm in plain view.
“(Investigations such as these) vary, depends on how they progress,” said Ellicott Police Chief William Ohnmeiss Jr.
“If things don’t go as expected they can take longer. Investigations can last months or as short as a week, but usually a couple on average.”
On March 9, police executed a search warrant of Anderson’s residence. Knowing Anderson was likely armed, police waited until he left the residence and took him into custody some 500 feet from his property. The multi-agency raid netted 2.2 ounces of cocaine, a digital scale, 3.8 pounds of marijuana, a small amount of “shatter” and 14 firearms.
The investigation, at the time, was ongoing and awaited a federal investigation. According to the affidavit in the criminal complaint documents, three weapons inside Anderson’s residence were traced back to Tall Tales Sporting Goods in Russell, Pa. Further investigation led to the discovery that Robert Lincoln, 26, of Jamestown had lawfully purchased three of the weapons but illegally transferred them to Lincoln a short time later.
The weapons in question were visible in a Feb. 19 Facebook post on Anderson’s profile.
“I gotta bout 30 guns and I love em all the same bang bang ‘merica,” Anderson posted. Another Facebook user commented, “And get them all taken the same when they say you can’t have them anymore.” Anderson responded, “They’re gonna have to kill me mane.”
According to the criminal complaint, the post concludes that Anderson attempted to make it known to his associates that he possesses firearms and that he is willing to use them.
Kennedy said information posted to social media can often help prosecutors.
“It’s powerful evidence,” Kennedy said, referring to social media posts in general. “Often times it’s either in the form of statements, admissions concerning criminality. In the (Anderson) case for example, photographs can be very powerful evidence. It can be evidence of association — we’ve used it in gang cases — Twitter and Facebook posts that show relationships between individuals charged with crimes. They may say ‘Well, I don’t know this person’ and we show a picture on social media of when they were together.”
The post alone isn’t enough, however. Kennedy said his office still needs to be able to prove where a photo was taken, when it was taken and if the firearm is indeed a real firearm — all of which were corroborated in the case of Anderson.
“That’s an aggressive stance we’ve taken on a couple of cases,” Kennedy said. “Certainly now with phones and electronics being so ubiquitous, they’re everywhere. Every investigation now we always generally check social media.”
A social media post made congruent with an ongoing investigation will be used in the case involving Anderson and Lincoln. However, oftentimes it can lead to the beginning of an investigation entirely.
A Falconer man was jailed in March after police were tipped off that he was making threats of “terrible violence” on social media. Ellicott police took 36-year-old James B. Caloren into custody on five felony counts of criminal possession of a weapon after receiving information Feb. 28 that he had allegedly posted a message on Facebook threatening violence.
Det. Kevin Pierce of the Ellicott Police Department said the threat was credible enough to begin an investigation. During that time, officers learned that a local storage unit rented by Caloren may have contained weapons.
“It was a credible threat that basically said he was contemplating doing terrible violence,” Pierce said after an arrest was made. “We always take these kinds of things seriously, especially in this day and age. Based on our investigation and the people we talked to, we learned of the storage unit and that he may have been keeping weapons in there.”
Police went on to recover an AK-47 assault rifle, 16- and 12-gauge shotguns, a rifle, other weapons and a “large amount of ammunition.”
“Facebook and social media has become an incredible tool for law enforcement,” Ohnmeiss said. “You can collect a lot of information from it. People think it’s private and it’s not private, it’s out there. People get a little loose in the lips and make posts they probably shouldn’t.”
Caloren’s case remains under federal investigation under the direction of the FBI and and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. According to Kennedy, threats made on social media are prosecutable in the court of law.
“There are first amendment issues, free speech and everything, but if we can prove it’s an actual threat then we can prosecute the case,” he said.
Anderson and Lincoln are each facing charges of conspiracy to make false statements to purchase firearms, which carries a mandatory penalty of five years in prison. Anderson is facing additional charges of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes which are punishable by a mandatory minimum of five years in prison and a maximum of life in prison.