Earlier this week, I was in the Chancery Division, Family Part for a hearing on one of my juvenile delinquency matters. While waiting to be called, I listened to the colloquy in the cases being heard before mine. Virtually every case included some discussion involving texting or social media. In the matter that was heard just before mine, the juvenile’s attorney asked the court to release her client – a recently arrested middle school student – on electronic monitoring. The application was denied because just prior to arrest, the juvenile posted a photograph of himself holding a handgun on social media. The prosecutor’s office checked virtually all of the popular social media outlets just before the hearing to see if the juvenile came up in any context, discovered the photograph and, of course, brought it to the court’s attention.
One of the issues in my juvenile case concerned certain text messages discovered on my client’s cell phone. When the police arrested my client, they coaxed him into executing a consent-to-search form for his cell phone. Upon searching the phone, they discovered text messages that, according to the state, implicated my client in the underlying offense.
There is a disturbing pattern here. In the first case, the prosecutor’s office simply knew to check all of the popular social media outlets prior to going to court. It seems that this has become part of their standard procedure in preparing for juvenile proceedings. In my case, the police guessed – correctly – that there was a very high likelihood that my client’s cell phone would contain damaging text messages.
The police and prosecutors are savvy to the ways juveniles use social media and cell phones. Obviously, this is not just an issue in juvenile cases – it is no longer unusual to receive discovery in adult criminal cases that includes material culled from the same sources. But text messages, as well as photos and verbal exchanges from social media, are playing increasingly significant roles in juvenile cases. Further, it appears to be standard practice in virtually every prosecutor’s office to check social media outlets and, where possible, cell phones to ascertain whether these sources contain anything tying the juvenile to the matter under investigation. More often than not, they do.
This blog already contains postings on this subject. But given the increasing prominence of cell phones and social media in juvenile cases, this topic merits further discussion. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the United States Supreme Court has now decided a series of cases saying, among other things, that juveniles can be incredibly irresponsible because their brains do not mature fully until they have entered their adult years. The Court is correct – juveniles are irresponsible, and that irresponsibility is reflected in their reckless use of social media and cell phones. Kids are being sent to youth facilities and, depending upon the severity of the charges, having their cases waived up to adult court, because of the content of their text messages and social media posts.
Thus, social media and text messaging are now major issues in juvenile matters. Juveniles text, and post communications and other material, concerning the incidents underlying their cases, and this material is subsequently discovered by the police and given over to the prosecutor’s office for use in the case. The material is easily susceptible to search and seizure by the police. Investigators can obtain the ability to search a juvenile’s cell phone in one of two ways. First, they can ask the juvenile to execute a consent-to-search form. If this is done using proper procedures, it allows the police to examine the phone and read whatever text messages it contains. If the juvenile refuses to consent, the police can get a warrant to search the cell phone. Further, social media outlets are very public platforms. Once the juvenile puts something on their Facebook page, the whole world, including the police and prosecutors, can see it.
Additionally, problems resulting from the juvenile’s use of these media arise both before charges are filed and during the case. If the juvenile is released and allowed to live at home while their case is pending, they should probably assume that the state is monitoring their use of social media. Anything they post that relates to their case or is otherwise inflammatory can come back to both haunt and hurt them at their next court appearance.
In today’s world, asking juveniles to forego texting or social media is a hopeless waste of time and effort. But both the juveniles and their parents need to remember that texts and social media postings are fair game in juvenile delinquency cases.
New Brunswick criminal defense attorney James S. Friedman represents juveniles in juvenile delinquency cases in Middlesex County and throughout New Jersey. If you son or daughter has received a juvenile complaint, contact us to learn about your options.