Text Messages as Evidence in Pennsylvania Criminal Cases

Filed under: Criminal Law Tags: by Steven F. Fairlie @ October 1, 2011

Text Messages as Evidence in Pennsylvania Criminal Cases

The recent explosion of cell phone technology has changed the way individuals communicate with each other.  As such, the courts have to react to these new forms of communication and create appropriate guidelines for how they should be admitted into evidence.  In the recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, Commonwealth v. Koch, the Court gave a few guidelines as to the circumstances that text messages can be admitted as evidence.  In the case, text messages on the defendant’s phone played a pivotal role in the defendant’s conviction.  The defendant appealed with the claim that the text messages should have been ruled inadmissible because they were not properly authenticated.   The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in favor of the defendant.  The opinion by Justice Bowes held that there was not adequate proof that the text messages were indeed sent by the defendant.  The mere presence of the phone in the defendant’s possession could not possibly prove that she was the author of text messages sent weeks or even months prior.  Since the defendant was not proven to be the author, the text messages were inadmissible.  What makes the Court’s decision interesting is that they did not try to create a new standard for text messages.  Instead, it molded the traditional rules for written evidence to text messages.  In order for written evidence to be permissible in court, the identity of the author must be clearly shown.  Mere possession of the evidence does not equate to authorship.  This case highlights the adaptation that courts, attorneys, and law enforcement must make in the face of new types of evidence that are a result of an increasing array of media that individuals can communicate through.

This case is also very interesting for how it has been interpreted by the mainstream media.  Because the result was that the text messages were held to be inadmissible many commentators have written that text messages are not admissible in Pennsylvania criminal cases.  Nothing could be further from the holding of Koch.   If you actually read the case, it turns out that many of the messages on the defendant’s phone were clearly not from her.    Some referred to her in the third person and the Detective admitted that many clearly were not from her.   As a result, it was clearly unfair to admit other messages and attribute them to her.  I think that under less compelling facts for the defense the messages would in fact be admitted.  The important point to take away is that if there appears to be a question regarding who wrote the messages, the Commonwealth will have to authenticate the messages properly.  Just don’t count on a per se rule against the admission of text messages in light of Koch.

If you have been charged with a crime, contact a Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorney at Fairlie & Lippy to discuss your case.

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