Remember a time before text messaging? Remember when emails and AIM chatrooms were the height of modern technological communication, and our phones only had buttons to dial numbers on? Remember…landlines? Yeah. We may romanticize the past now, with a new smartphone coming out (and later breaking) every other month or so, but not a lot of us can truly say we haven’t enjoyed the invention of texting. It’s quick, convenient, and the invent of the Cloud means chains can carry on for years.
The legal system, though, is starting to catch up to the tech. Laws are changed and modified to better accommodate its existence and its importance in court, and attorneys on all sides have been working on honing their skills when it comes to dismissing or supporting digital evidence. This is either good or bad depending on the situation, and it may even be both. Texts can be used against you — and they can be used in your defense.
How Annapolis courts handle text messages as evidence in domestic violence cases
A lot of folks are surprised to learn that their texts aren’t as sacred as they like to believe. Aside from considering retrieving texts for court a violation of personal space, it is easy to feel it’s unfair simply because there’s not really a way to 100% prove who sent a text. We’ve all seen the common movie trope of the bad guy texting one good guy from another good guy’s phone. Hasn’t a jury? Hasn’t a judge? And, okay, say you did send the text. But what if it was a joke? Sarcasm, fake threats, and faux arguments count as love languages to some people. So, if you jokingly told your ex you’d kill her if she ate the last slice of pizza, how come she could use that against you in court and get you convicted of something like domestic violence?
It’s not that any of that is wrong. They’re real points; they make sense. It’s just that the law is complicated and intricate because so many possible situations, circumstances and factors exist. Ultimately, this ends up creating loopholes, workarounds, and things like texts-as-evidence that can only be used in court with a couple of asterisks.
Asterisk number one is that your motivation doesn’t really matter as long as the act was committed. In cases of assault (which includes digital threats and anything that causes someone to reasonably expect violent follow-through), the court doesn’t care if you were joking or didn’t mean it. They don’t even care if you meant to be offensive, or if the “victim” was actually afraid. If you sent a threat on purpose, and the person who received it thought you might really do it, that is all that takes for the act to be considered assault.
Assault, as you may know, is considered domestic assault if it’s between you and a romantic partner. Threats, harassment, and pretty much everything else in your text messages would then fall under that umbrella.
Asterisk number two says texts can’t be used as evidence ALONE. Basically, the court looks at a multitude of factors surrounding text messages to authenticate them before they’re admissible. So, proving the phone is yours and the texts contain identifying information is a must, and so is getting as much context as possible. This means reading as many messages as possible and even finding specific witnesses to verify what they find, and it also means searching for any deleted content. Why? Because innocent people don’t just delete texts in random chunks, especially if those chunks contain Evidence of threatening behavior. The key is separating hearsay from actual proof of a crime.
Once deemed admissible, attorneys on both sides still have to argue for or against the texts’ validity and try to look at the messages from every possible angle for as much proof (or lack thereof) as possible. So, instead of deleting your shady messages, try to just keep as many “receipts,” as the young kids say, as you can. Dates and times of pertinent messages, any coinciding social media posts or other altercations, and pictures of everything can help you even if you’re the so-called guilty party.
Good defenses exist as long as good attorneys are the ones who use them
Two things you should never do in court when you’re facing any sort of criminal charges: giving up, and trying to represent yourself. You may be so confident in your innocence and mad debate skills, and you may have taken screenshots of all the dirty laundry you could find, and a good prosecutor is still going to wipe the proverbial floor with your now-convicted butt. Like I said before, law is COMPLICATED. It is not meant for the average person to navigate, and that is very intentional. The less you understand as the defendant, the less able you are to, well, defend yourself.
That is why defense attorneys exist, and why the right to a fair trial exists. Take. Advantage. Even if there are damning texts of you, hiring an experienced Annapolis defense attorney can still keep you away from a life-changing conviction. In a 2017 case, a woman accused her boyfriend of domestic assault and had pictures of her injuries to go with a bunch of texts from him. This guy did end up getting some sort of conviction, but guess what? When the evidence was brought before the defendant’s attorney, it ended up hurting the prosecution because it showed unstable and threatening behavior from her. Three of the charges against the boyfriend (two of which were felonies) were dismissed because of this.
One of the ways defense attorneys help is by using any digital evidence against you to cast doubt on your accuser’s state of mind, patterns of behavior, and actions surrounding the incident. Anything that weakens their credibility as a witness can turn a jury in your favor. Also, since you may have noticed the language surrounding texts-as-evidence is kinda vague and wishy-washy, courts often pick and choose what will and won’t count in a slow, painstaking process that gives us more time to strengthen and plead your case.
So, let’s go back to the pizza example. You jokingly threaten to kill your wife if she ate the last slice of pizza. Nothing else happens, no drama occurs, but then a while later you two divorce on some nasty terms. She decides to accuse you of domestic assault because of that “threat” and manages to get the case into court. While this isn’t great for you, a good criminal defense attorney can, in fact, point out obvious jest. If they pull up the text in question and it ends up being *pizza emoji* + *bride emoji* = *knife emoji*…you may be okay.
All this is to say that defenses really and truly are out there no matter what your circumstances are; you just need a good attorney to divine and utilize the right ones to your advantage. Domestic assault is a serious charge that carries some serious weight, but even without text message evidence one way or another, there are plenty of ways to assert your innocence and preserve your freedom, your home, and pretty much everything else you are grateful for.
In Annapolis and Ellicott City, I work as a domestic assault defense attorney at Drew Cochran, Attorney at Law. My decades of experience are at your disposal whenever you need me because I take pride in being there for my clients and, for lack of a better term, defending the hell out of them. To ask questions, get started, or even just say hi, you can reach me at 410-271-1892 or via my contact form — and, if you’ve been accused of domestic assault, you should do this now.
Just remember — Keep Calm, and Call Drew.