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Social media becoming more popular with gang members

In gangster culture, sometimes the lines between reality and fiction can blur. If every gangster rapper were arrested on the basis of inciting violence in their lyrics, there would be a lot of First Amendment lawsuits being filed. Social media has made these lines even harder to draw. In areas in Colorado with a strong gang presence, some feel the need to enhance their reputation through posting intimidating videos or social media posts. The motivation may be social acceptance in a gang, but it can also be creative expression or an attempt to virally gain friends and intimidate rivals.

Yet right now, social media content is often being used as evidence in court to prove suspects' affiliation with gang-related activity. Law enforcement officers also lurk on social media, seeking incriminating gang-related posts. This is a drastic change from the '80s and '90s, in which gang leaders preferred to keep a low profile. Today, "cyberbanging" is a popular way to expand the influence of gangs and other street culture involved with criminal activities, and police are quickly catching on.

What defines social media content as incriminating, or allows it to be used as evidence in court? It depends. If a violent act is recorded, it may be considered evidence. One case in Chicago involved an online feud, in which two rappers insulted each other online. One of them tweeted his location and was fatally shot while riding his bicycle in that area. Later, the other rapper mocked his death online. In another case in Daytona Beach, Florida, five kids assaulted a teen and videotaped it. The victim's mother found the video on Facebook, which allowed the suspects to be quickly apprehended.

It gets more complicated if a video does not clearly reveal a crime being committed or is not relevant to the charges at hand. A video of people pointing guns at a screen and rapping about violence or retribution may not indicate an actual crime being committed. Yet Colorado law enforcement officers may take social media posts more seriously than they were intended. If this happens, it's important to have a criminal defense attorney who can use the complex, rapidly evolving laws around social media, online privacy and First Amendment rights to help prove innocence.

Source: Denver Post, "Tweets and threats: Gangs find new home on the Net" Sharon Cohen, Jan. 11, 2014

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