The latest tool in Greenwich police's toolbelt: Social media

Millions of people use it connect with friends and family, tag pictures, send messages and tell the world what's on their minds.

But what many members of popular social networking Web sites might consider harmless "tweets," "status updates" or "wall posts," law enforcement officials often see as evidence and investigative leads.

When crime strikes, detectives no longer just roll out yellow crime scene tape and knock on doors, they log onto Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to track suspects, corroborate stories and help locate missing persons.

"It has become a matter of routine, to just automatically check (these Web sites)," said Greenwich Police Detective Sgt. Pierangelo Corticelli. "This new technology is assisting us in continuing old-fashioned, tried-and-true police methods."

Professor Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City prosecutor and New York Police Department officer, said he has noticed social media becoming more intertwined with law enforcement investigations in recent years.

"It's an interesting trend and it's certainly worth watching," said O'Donnell, who has spent the last several years teaching courses on criminal investigations at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, based in New York City.

O'Donnell said police around the country are using these technologies to conduct background searches on suspects, verify alibis, obtain location information and disseminate or verify information with the public. By doing so, O'Donnell said police are saving time and energy by speeding up tactics that once took much more leg work.

"What used to take hours just looking for someone, now takes five minutes," he said. "It's a treasure trove of insight that has the potential to not only convict the guilty, but vindicate the innocent."

O'Donnell mentioned a case in Brooklyn, N.Y., in which a Twitter account provided a legitimate alibi for a man charged with robbery.

"He was twittering about making pancakes and his attorney brought it to the attention of the district attorney," said O'Donnell. "It resulted in the charges being dropped."

While these new investigative tactics have proved helpful to law enforcement, some are wary of how this cyber evidence is being admitted into court without judges scrutinizing it to the same extent as more traditional evidence.

"I do think it's unfair," said Stamford-based defense attorney Matthew Maddox, noting how with any other type of evidence, stringent rules are applied to determine credibility. "If those tests were applied to cyber messages on Facebook and MySpace, they would never come into court. They would never even be considered."

While judges require lawyers to establish a foundation to bring in evidence, Maddox feels that cyber information is taken at face value -- something that O'Donnell says should never happen.

Information obtained from these Web sites will never replace traditional methods of investigating crime, O'Donnell said.

"It's not going to replace the old-fashioned methods, but it can enhance," said O'Donnell, calling some Web postings "pure hyperbole."

"It also raises the (issue) that people can manufacture information and deliberately state or misstate things in favor of their alibi. You could talk about how much you love someone you are planning to hurt," O'Donnell said.

Corticelli, who is in the process of setting up a Facebook page for the Greenwich Police Department, said police are well aware of the dangers presented in following this digital information, and go to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of it.

"You always have to be able to place a living person behind that keyboard," Corticelli said. "If you're not able to place a person who is either the subject of an investigation or a witness behind that virtual environment, it is not as helpful as you would want."

Greenwich Police said they have utilized the technology to find friends of known suspects, background-check suspects and witnesses and find photos or videos that may be valuable to an investigation.

Often, finding solid information online can help build a case in court, Corticelli said.

"If we are able to verify that there is information on there that is pertinent to our investigation, it would help to build probable cause towards getting some type of legal process going," he said.

However, Corticelli said most people block their information to make it private, which means police need to rely on warrants to obtain anything beyond their access.

"Most people are savvy enough to restrict information with Facebook, which is a good thing, but if we are able to verify a person has a Facebook page and down the road it becomes an issue where we need to determine information contained in page, we can always develop probable cause and get a warrant," Corticelli said.

In February 2009, Maddox said he saw first hand the role online evidence plays in real-life cases when his 24-year-old client from Greenwich applied to a diversionary program that would have wiped a possession of narcotics charge from his record.

During the hearing at state Superior Court in Stamford, Maddox told a judge that his client, Jason Cunningham, was a sober and reformed man who was impacted greatly by his friend's overdose death, from which the charge stemmed.

But prosecutors told a different story, pointing to postings alluding to drug use and questionable pictures obtained from Cunningham's MySpace page.

"Mr. Cunningham has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the gravity of his drug problem," Assistant State's Attorney David Applegate said during the hearing. "His own postings on an Internet program made light of the drug problem. It was almost a badge of honor for him, and that flies in the face of the drug-education program."

The online postings proved damning, as Judge Richard Comerford called the MySpace material an example of "braggadocio" and denied the program. Cunningham later pleaded guilty to a felony conviction, receiving a five-year suspended jail sentence and three years of probation.

"I think that reaction and the manner in which it was used against Jason Cunningham was unfair and exaggerated," said Maddox, noting that the court failed to realize that these pages are creative outlets that often do not accurately represent a person. "I think it is difficult for many participants in the court system to grasp those aspects."

Mark Sherman, a defense attorney in Stamford, agreed that the information online can be hard to verify, but believed the court system is becoming more tech-savvy.

"It can be speculative and argumentative, but at same time it's also very revealing," Sherman said. "Kids today have no idea how vulnerable they become when they start sharing their personal lives out in the electronic world."

Even though cyber information can be incriminating to those in trouble with the law, Sherman said the technology works both ways, as defense attorneys are often able to gather information to vindicate clients and find leads for a defense strategy, just like O'Donnell saw with the pancake alibi.

Sherman said this is especially true of teenagers, although lawyers are required to get parental permission before conducting research on a minor's social networking page.

"It's a window into the dialogue and admissions and statements of minors who unknowingly put themselves out in virtual world and provide defense attorneys with very useful information," said Sherman.

Specifically with sexual assault cases involving minors, Facebook messages and Internet postings can give lawyers insight into what led accusers to bring charges, Sherman said.

Although no one doubts the impact social media is having on the world of crime and punishment, some debate how long this phenomenon will last, or how long users will continue to put such personal information out into the virtual realm.

"It is possible that Twitter and Facebook will come and go. You don't want to overestimate it," said O'Donnell. "The more aware people are, the less valuable, incriminating stuff they will say. There could be a chilling effect as soon as people know that law enforcement is hooked into this stuff."

But Maddox said he feels this trend will only continue to grow, becoming even more interconnected with the legal system, both in criminal and civil cases.

"I don't see this as a fad at all," Maddox said. "Unless some type of sweeping electronic cataclysm befalls us, I don't see this peculiar societal compulsion waning. If anything, I see it increasing."