Social Media: A Powerful Investigative Tool!…………REALLY?
Georgia and Florida Conservation Officers Work Together to Shut Down Poachers
As recently as the early 2000’s, law enforcement agencies, including those enforcing conservation law, would have laughed at anyone that even hinted that social media, and Facebook in particular would, in the near future, be an effective and efficient investigative tool, producing solid evidence against those who wish to violate the law.
Who’s laughing now? I’ll tell you. It’s officers around the world who have successfully brought criminals to justice after gathering mountains of evidence from Facebook and other social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and others.
Ironically, and even laughable, is the fact that the criminals are literally handing the officers photos, video, audio files and admissions of guilt in their own words, without the officer having to leave the office. This “free” information is often so complete that when confronted with their own social media posts, offenders realize they have no defense against it.
That brings us to a case early this year in the deep south, where evidence obtained from several Facebook pages and some top-notch investigative work by conservation officers in Georgia and Florida stopped a brazen group of deer poachers.
On January 14th, 2016, Corporal Jason Shipes, a 15-year veteran with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement Division received a tip from a concerned sportsman of illegal activity on xxxxxxxxxxx in Du Pont, Georgia, a small town in Clinch County, about 25 air miles from the Florida state line.
The information he received indicated that some members of the xxxx had exceeded the bag limit of antlered deer during the 2015-2016 deer season, and had possibly hunted without valid hunting licenses. The tipster also provided a screenshot of a post on xxxx closed-group Facebook page of four potential violators.
Now enter Facebook.
Corporal Shipes began investigating the four subjects, understanding that if any of them had social media accounts and regularly posted, he would likely gather some valuable information to get the case moving forward.
He was right.
The xxxx Facebook screenshot consisted of several photos and a single text statement. The statement indicated that the four subjects were responsible for killing approximately 20 different deer during the 2015/2016 season, calling themselves a “Team”. The page also stated that the four were active members of the nearly 11,000 acre club. NARRATIVE Georgia’s 2015-2016 deer season began on September 12, 2015 with archery only until primitive weapons were allowed on October 10th. General firearms season began on October 17th and ended on January 10, 2016. State law allows up to two antlered and ten antlerless deer per person each season (two additional does may be harvested in lieu of the two bucks). Also, all deer harvested must be recorded in a harvest record at the time of the kill.
On January 15th, Cpl. Shipes began gathering information on each of the subjects including current addresses, driver’s license information and to see if they possessed the valid licenses required to hunt in the State of Georgia during the 2015-2016 deer season.
He determined that xxxxxxxx license had expired on the first day of firearms season (Oct. 17) and he had not purchased a new one to cover the rest of the season. He also discovered that other individuals, who may have been involved in the illegal activity as well, had not had a valid Georgia hunting license since the 2013-2014 season. The other three suspects did have valid licenses to hunt big game in the state.
Cpl. Shipes also recognized that he would be contacting Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) officers for assistance as he determined that all of the suspects were from Florida. Georgia Rangers and Florida officers often work together on cases that cross the state line and this case would be another example of a solid partnership in conservation law enforcement.
But before assembling the LE team, Shipes wanted to gather more evidence. He began carefully examining the Facebook screenshots and photos from the xxxx page and the suspect’s individual pages.
The original screenshot, provided by the informant, was posted on January 13th to an xxxx closed group Facebook page from the personal “public” Facebook page of xxxxxxxx. The screenshot included five photos along with a statement, complete with poor grammar and punctuation so common to Facebook. It read in part: “…We have killed 9 in my house xxxxxxxx killed 4 xxxxxxx killed 5, and xxxxxxx killed I think 5 to. So it wasn’t to bad of a season for team xxxxxxxx And I can wait to do it all over again.”
One photo in the post showed a juvenile family member sitting on a dog box in the rear of a vehicle with six different sets of antlers. Another shows an individual with an eight-point buck, possibly taken at the camping area of xxxx. The third was of xxxxxx with an antlerless deer at what appears to be the skinning area of a hunting camp.
The fourth and fifth pictures depict xxxxxxxxx with two antlered deer. The fifth picture had a “+17” similar to a watermark, Facebook’s way of indicating that there were 17 additional photos attached to that post. Shipes contacted the informant and asked if possible, could he send the additional photos attached to this post. Soon, they were part of the growing evidence file. The others were various pictures of the subjects with harvested deer.
After closely examining characteristics of the antlers in all of the photos, Shipes was able to determine that they matched the antlers in the original photo on the dog box in the bed of the truck.
On January 16th, Shipes received another screenshot from xxxx Facebook page. xxxxxx had posted a question: “Anybody want to go listen to some dogs tomorrow with me and xxxxx?”
The next day, Shipes and his supervisor, Sergeant Patrick Dupree, responded to xxxx to possibly make contact with xxxxxxxxx and to attempt to identify specific locations where some of the photos had been taken. They located a skinning shed, grassy field, travel trailers, and a wooden split rail fence, all of which appeared in photos from the Facebook pages.
They also patrolled the area, looking for xxxxxxx and any signs that he was illegally deer hunting with dogs out of season. Although they did not make contact with him, they did find fresh deer and hound tracks, as well as boot prints, indicating that someone had been running deer dogs in the area.
With enough evidence in place to establish probable cause, the time had come to meet with Florida officers to discuss interagency cooperation in pursuing the investigation. On January 18th, Shipes met with FWC Investigator II Todd Hoyle in Fargo, GA. Hoyle provided Florida driver’s license and Florida hunting and fishing license information of the suspects. During the meeting, the officers also decided to utilize Facebook’s Legal assistance to preserve the personal Facebook pages of the individuals. Shipes secured and served search warrants on the pages through Facebook’s legal site.
During the first half of February, information from the Facebook page warrants arrived and the Georgia Ranger began a thorough and tedious examination of the materials.
xxxxxxxx page yielded 2,132 pages of information including text messages, conversations between users, photos, and specific data related to those photos such as times, dates and GPS locations indicating when and where the photos were taken, and when they were uploaded to Facebook. It also included text communications between xxxxxx and other Facebook users specifically related to the photos and screenshots already in evidence. The xxxx information was 131 pages long but did not provide any additional evidence regarding the investigation.
On February 23rd, the information requested from Facebook’s legal department related to the pages arrived. xxxxxxx information contained 756 pages and xxxxxxx was 33 pages.
xxxxxxx page revealed that he legally harvested an eight-point buck on September 27, 2015, twenty days before his license was to expire. Since xxxxx failed to purchase a hunting licenses after October 17, 2015, any further hunting activity would be illegal. Several text conversations after that date indicated that xxxxxx continued to hunt throughout the winter, killing at least two more deer and hunting deer with dogs illegally.
xxxxxxx page contained evidence, including photos and text, that he had exceeded the season bag limit in Georgia, taking at least three antlered deer. Many of the photos were clearly taken on, or near xxxx
On March 29th, five Georgia and Florida officers successfully made contact with each subject at their residences and conducted interviews. During the interviews, the defendants voluntarily relinquished 19 sets of antlers to the Georgia officers. Several sets were from illegal kills in previous years, but Shipes chose not to bring additional charges for those violations due to the cooperation of the subjects during the interviews and their willingness to turn over all of the antlers that had been obtained illegally.
All four primary subjects were cited for a total of 17 separate violations, and three warnings were issued to another individual. After seeing the volume indisputable evidence against them, most of it from their own Facebook posts, all four of the defendants chose plea agreements over going to trial.
Six charges were brought against xxxxxxxx including violating recording requirements and exceeding the bag limits. He paid $1,500 in fines. xxxxxxxx received three warnings for hunting without a non-resident license, hunting without a non-residence big game license and failing to obtain a harvest record.
xxxxxxxxxx was charged with hunting without a non-resident license, hunting without a big game license, hunting deer with dogs without a deer dog license and failure to obtain a harvest record. His fines totaled $715.
xxxxxxxxxx paid $750 in fines for failing to record and report his harvests and xxxxxxxxxx was assessed $1,000 in fines for no harvest record and exceeding bag limits.
In total, 20 documented violations and nearly $4,000 in fines – and the violators actually presented the evidence that convicted them by way of Facebook.
Just a few years ago, social media was fairly insignificant and primarily used for entertainment. Today, even though it continues to provide entertainment value, its significance has skyrocketed with millions and millions of subscribers, posting everything from last week’s grocery list, to how Aunt Betty was dressed improperly at the family reunion, to crimes as they are being committed.
Law enforcement officials have known for a very long time that most criminals will eventually tell on themselves. With social media, the opportunity to share their illegal activities, that many seem to be so proud of, is readily available and simple, and one post can reach a very large audience in a very short amount of time. And, for most of them, it is just entirely too tempting.
Corporal Shipes seems convinced that social media should be explored regularly within the investigative process.
“So much illegal activity is blatantly posted to social media and the law enforcement community is just beginning to tap into this resource,” he said. “The large amount of evidence was amazing to me and how valuable it was to our case and to shutting down these poachers.”
The takeaway for law enforcement is that social media is a powerful tool in bringing those who choose to break the law to justice. Use all the tools at your disposal……..but no selfies!!
Mark McKinnon is the public affairs officer for the Georgia DNR Law Enforcement Division.