Earlier this year, two Louisiana men were indicted on federal charges after prosecutors said they used a social media website to intimidate a witness in a tax fraud case against the mother of one of the men. According to prosecutors, at least one of the men posted threatening messages on Instagram to a witness who had testified against the woman. Charges against one of the men were eventually dropped, but they continue against the woman's son. He could face up to 20 years in prison.
Authorities say that cases like this one are increasingly common. While there has been much recent media attention paid to the problem of young people bullying each other online, there has been relatively little attention paid to online witness intimidation.
Across the nation, there have been many reports of people allegedly using Facebook, Instagram or other social media sites to identify or intimidate witnesses. One account on Instagram identified more than 30 witnesses in different cases this year before being shut down, according to reports. There are also websites that invite people to identify witnesses. Some courthouses have begun banning the use of cell phones, in the fear that they might be used to photograph witnesses.
Witness intimidation is a crime, and conviction can carry long-term consequences. Many of the people accused of witness intimidation never really meant to harm anyone, and may not have realized the seriousness of the situation. If people are using social media to intimidate witnesses, prosecutors can use their social media posts as evidence against them.
Online witness intimidation is another addition to the list of computer crimes that are growing more quickly than the law or the public can keep up with them. Louisiana residents accused of these crimes are entitled to a defense, and it's important that they get the best defense they can.
Source: NBC News, "Witness intimidation on social media: Law enforcements growing challenge," Elizabeth Chuck, Nov. 15, 2013