How Your Search History Can Impact a Criminal Trial
The internet is constantly growing and deepening, with numerous rabbit holes one can fall down when browsing search results. This widespread access to information makes most online users believe that their search histories are allowable and safe, but this is false. Even nonchalantly browsing the internet can impact your criminal record. Investigators can access a suspect’s browser history during a criminal investigation, and any evidence they find can be used against you in a court of law.
Is Browser History Private Data?
Many users falsely assume that their browser history is private information, especially if they use incognito mode or clear their browser history regularly. However, internet service providers (ISPs) do keep records of their users’ online history, including searches you’ve made and websites you’ve visited. Typically, this information is kept private, but if police investigators suspect you of a crime, then it can be treated as evidence. This is especially common for cases involving internet crimes.
Search warrants are typically required for police officers to access a suspect’s browser history, and while state and local officers may require one to gain access to your computer, cell phone, or other electronic devices, federal agencies do not need warrants to see browser data. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can access your search history without first obtaining a warrant, and prosecutors can also subpoena your ISP records if you have been charged with a crime. While privacy advocates have made efforts to make search warrants a requirement, the current wording of the Patriot Act allows federal agents to collect browser history as evidence without them.
When Are Search Results Relevant to a Criminal Case?
There are some internet searches that can lead to criminal charges on their own, such as searches for child pornography or illegal downloads that lead to copyright violations. However, beyond these unique situations, a prosecutor will only demand access to a defendant’s browser history when it can be used as evidence for another criminal charge.
Reasons a prosecutor may want a defendant’s browser history include:
- Intent: Intent is a key element of major crimes, ranging from white-collar to violent crimes. If a defendant’s browser history includes search terms like “how to dispose of a body” or “how to sell heroin,” it may show that the defendant had planned on committing the crime. Premeditation is for serious charges like murder.
- Harassment: If a defendant used social media or other chat services to harass or bully a victim, it can result in criminal charges. In addition to these messages themselves, a prosecutor may also cite browser data to show a defendant used anonymous accounts to send the messages.
- Stalking: Charges of stalking can be supported through a defendant’s online data if he has a history of searching the victim’s name or personal information, used online maps to track the victim’s location, or regularly interacted with the victim’s social media accounts.
- Motive: A defendant’s browser may help to show motive during a criminal trial by demonstrating why he or she committed the crime. Searching for information about “how inheritance is distributed prior to a divorce” prior to the death of a spouse may demonstrate that a defendant planned to commit a murder for financial gain, for example.
Protecting Your Freedom in a Criminal Trial
Our team at Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP understands how valuable the internet is to our day-to-day lives, but we also caution people on how they use it. Even a seemingly innocent online search can damage your reputation in the event of a criminal case and impact a jury’s final decision. Users should be careful about what they search, which websites they visit, and how others may interpret their browser data.
If you or someone you love has been charged with a crime, it is important to speak to a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney at Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP. We have decades of experience protecting clients in both local and federal courts. Each of our team members brings something unique to the table, allowing us to create thorough defense strategies for our clients. Call us at (213) 688-0460 to discuss your case in a free confidential consultation.