A Primer for Using the Legal Systems Toolkit:
Understanding & Investigating Tech Misuse
The Legal Systems Toolkit helps legal system stakeholders: Law Enforcement, Attorneys, Court Personnel, Community Corrections Officers, and others identify privacy and safety options, what technology is relevant to a case, and how to use technology evidence to hold offenders accountable. Before reviewing the toolkit, there are several important considerations that serve as a starting point for your work.
Technology Isn’t the Problem
Regardless of the tactics, abusive behavior will always be the core issue. Technology misuse is one tactic among many that offenders use against victims. Even if technology was removed from the equation, the abuse would likely continue in other ways. Technology does extend the reach of a perpetrator, and it can increase the trauma for a victim. However, it can also provide a rich trail of evidence and can be used strategically in safety planning.
A Survivor’s Right to Technology
Telling a victim to get rid of their technology or to go offline is not a feasible option. Technology has become a necessity in our everyday lives, and it can also serve as important lifeline for victims in an emergency. Survivors may need to remain online to decrease isolation, for their job, or as a part of custody planning. Telling a survivor to get rid of an account or device may even escalate the level of violence since an offender may then seek the victim out in person.
People working in legal systems have a unique opportunity to help victims stay connected, document the abuse, and safely access tools that can help in an emergency. Refer victims to a local advocate who understands tech safety, or let them know about the resources in our Survivor Toolkit at TechSafety.org.
In cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and harassment, legal system stakeholders play a pivotal role in protecting the victim and holding the offender accountable. Establishing rapport with the victim is incredibly important to the investigation and evidence collection process. When victims feel believed and that they can trust the officer or attorney, they’re more likely to reach out with new evidence, or when things get worse (especially in cases where the evidence may include sensitive or embarrassing content).
The Digital Trail
Technology evidence may provide law enforcement and attorneys with tangible proof needed to make a case. It may also help in negotiating pleas, settlements, obtaining confessions or guilty verdicts, or relieve some of the pressure on victims to testify against their perpetrator. Technology evidence may include devices, messages, pictures or videos, account logs or billing statements, apps, location information, and “metadata” or the information embedded in emails.
Evidence Collection Tips
Some victims have an idea of what technology is being misused, while others may only know that offender knows too much about their conversations, whereabouts, or activities. The questions you ask can help narrow down the technology being misused.
In addition to obvious evidence like threatening text messages or social media posts, also consider hidden cameras, location trackers, mobile device apps and settings, or spyware, which are all becoming more common.
Remember that how-to videos and blogs provide tutorials and make misuse easier, even for those with little or no technology expertise.
Know the specific language technology companies require in warrants and orders to ensure that you are gathering the information you need.
Although technology can produce an enormous amount of available evidence, it’s important to balance the amount collected with the victim’s privacy rights and needs of the case, especially considering discovery rules.
Consider All Possible Charges
There is a wide array of laws that can be used to hold offenders accountable. Be sure to identify and consider both state and federal laws that:
address violence and abuse,
explicitly or implicitly include the use of electronic communications, or
relate to technology, communications, privacy and confidentiality, even if they are not necessarily focused on domestic violence or sexual assault.
If an incident may not be a crime or legal offense itself, see if a larger pattern of behavior could fall under a stalking or harassment statute.
Building a Case & Working with Victims
Help victims learn to safely document incidents to establish a pattern and identify possible evidence.
Send preservation requests to ensure that evidence is not deleted.
Refer victims to an advocate for information on increasing safety.
Share information about the limitations of the evidence or the law. When victims know more, they’re empowered. And when they feel listened to and respected, they are more likely to trust you with new information or come to you when the situation gets worse.