A Temporary Service with Permanent Implications: The Use of Snapchat Photos as Evidence

By: Chanel Chasanov

Snapchat is an application made for smartphones that allows the user to send photos or videos to their friends for up to ten seconds. After those ten seconds the Snapchat message disappears forever, or so we thought.[1]  When a user signs up for Snapchat, they are agreeing to a privacy policy that allows the site to store their contents in order to share and investigate certain legal violations.[2]   A report provided by Snapchat revealed that in a four month period, Snapchat received 375 requests of information from the United States government and Snapchat provided user information on 92 percent of those cases.[3]  Our information may not be as private as we previously thought.

In Pennsylvania, Maxwell Morton was arrested and charged after he sent a Snapchat selfie of himself with a dead body.[4]  Morton thought the evidence of his murderous afternoon would disappear within 24 hours, but one of his friends screenshotted the photo and displayed it to the police.[5]  If it weren’t for Snapchat, this murder could have gone unsolved.[6]  In 2014, a Snapchat video helped convict two people of sexual assault in Massachusetts.[7]  Again, the perpetrators videos were screenshotted and forwarded to the police.[8]  The use of Snapchat photos as evidence is not unique in either of these cases. Courts are increasingly allowing Snapchat photos and videos to be used as circumstantial evidence in lawsuits and criminal cases.[9]

When the Snapchat photo or video is not screenshotted by a third party, it is still allowed as evidence in a court of law.[10]  Earlier this year, a court determined that a recreation of a Snapchat video was permissible as evidence.[11]  This evidence was a Snapchat video recorded of someone else, without their permission.[12]  The court held that this behavior invades a person’s privacy because that individual reasonably expects that their activities will not be broadcasted on social media.[13]

Even though Snapchat evidence can be admitted into evidence by courts, Snapchat evidence alone cannot convict someone.[14]  In an Alabama case, the court held that while a Snapchat photo showing a minor with a gun was admitted into evidence in a robbery case, it was not enough to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.[15]  The photo itself does not prove the robbery, it only proves possession of a weapon.[16]  The meaning of that Snapchat picture is determined by the jury and often times the photo alone is not enough to convict and individual beyond a reasonable doubt.[17]

A Nielson study revealed that forty-one percent of all 18 to 34-year-olds are on Snapchat.[18]  With this number of users, it is a shame that people are unaware of the implications of their messages. In an increasingly digital world, people must become aware that nothing is ever private, even on Snapchat.


[1] See Kashmir Hill, Snapchats Don’t Disappear: Forensics Firm has Pulled Dozens of Supposedly-Deleted Photos from Android Phones, Forbes (May 9, 2013), http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/05/09/snapchats-dont-disappear/#29fbc33d2ed4.

[2] See Evangelos Siozios, Social Media in the Courtroom: What is Admissible, Law Street (Nov. 1, 2014), http://lawstreetmedia.com/issues/law-and-politics/social-media-in-the-courtroom-what-is-admissible/.

[3] See Carl Williott, The Government Wants to See your Snaps—And Snapchat is Letting Them, MTV News (April 3, 2015), http://www.mtv.com/news/2123127/snapchat-transparency-report/ (noting that Snapchat gave out usernames, emails, phone numbers, and other details of a user’s account to law enforcement agencies).

[4] See Laura Stampler, Teen Arrested After Taking Snapchat Selfie with Murder Victim’s Body, Time (Feb. 9, 2015), http://time.com/3700822/teen-murder-snapchat-selfie/.

[5] See id.

[6] See id. (emphasizing that this Snapchat photo was a key piece of evidence).

[7] See Sara Ashley O’Brien, Two People Found Guilty in Snapchat Assault Case, CNN Money (July 19, 2016), http://money.cnn.com/2016/07/19/technology/snapchat-sexual-assault-case/.

[8] See id.

[9] See generally In re Hopfinger, No. 323498, 2015 Mich. App. LEXIS 772 (Mich. Ct. App. April, 16, 2015) (determining that a Snapchat photo of the respondent with a Jack Daniel’s bottle in the background was admitted as evidence); N.L.O. v. Alabama, No. CR-15-1020, 2016 Ala. Crim. App. LEXIS 69 (Ala. Crim. App. Oct. 21, 2016) (holding that a Snapchat photo of the defendant holding a gun was admitted into evidence, but it was not strong enough to convict him).

[10] See In re M.H., 205 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1, 5 (Cal. Ct. App. 2016).

[11] See id. at 3.

[12] See id. at 4.

[13] See id.at 3.

[14] See N.L.O. v. Alabama, No. CR-15-1020, 2016 Ala. Crim. App. LEXIS 69, 8 (Ala. Crim. App. Oct. 21, 2016).

[15] See id.

[16] See id.

[17] See id.

[18] See Steven Perlberg, Snapchat: How Brands Reach Millennials, The Wall Street Journal (June 22, 2016), http://www.wsj.com/articles/snapchat-how-brands-reach-millennials-1466568063.