As society and technology evolve, the courts need to evolve with it. A pressing issue that courts have had to deal with is the use of digital data in criminal cases against defendants, particularly emails.
Not only can the contents of an email be evidence against a defendant, but the metadata behind the email and the account, such as date and time of creation and IP address, are being used more frequently in courts. The Court in Commonwealth v. Michael Middleton considered whether expert testimony is required to explain email subscriber information in a criminal case.
What is the standard for admitting electronic communications?
The standard for admitting electronic communications, such as email, into evidence is that a judge must determine whether sufficient evidence exists for “a reasonable jury to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant authored the communication.” It is not required for an expert to testify on this matter, or even proof the defendant had exclusive access to the computer which the emails originated from.
In the present case, the court determined that the circumstantial evidence surrounding the emails was not only sufficient but “overwhelming.” The defendant was previously married to the victim, and after their marriage ended, the victim, her mother, and the victim’s new partner received emails from an email address that referenced a nickname the defendant had for the victim when they were married.
These emails disclosed certain personal details about the victim and her partner, including information that would be known only by a sender who had access to the emails between them. The emails also referenced the defendant and victim’s divorce hearings, personal information about the victim’s partner and his family, and the restraining order the victim got against the defendant.
The defendant made multiple email addresses and sent emails to the victim, her partner, her mother, and eventually, her coworkers.
What is the evidence regarding email subscriber information?
The specific evidence that the prosecution sought to be admitted was data from Google that listed the email addresses, the date and time the account was created, and a Google account number. Most of the Google records also indicate the email account was last used.
The defendant argued that this evidence would require expert testimony to be admitted because it would be “confusing” to the jury without expert testimony, and a layperson would not be able to understand.
The Court rejected this argument saying that understanding dates of use and when an email account was created did not require “specific, technical, or other specialized knowledge.” The Court analogized this case with prior cases using mapping data, and cell phone logs, which both did not require expert testimony.
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