Online searches as evidence in a criminal case

medium_5938168933I noticed an interesting ruling in the recent case of a Seattle lawyer who pleaded* guilty to five counts of rape and one count of burglary, for his attacks on several women, most of them Asian female massage therapists. According to the Seattle Times, the trial judge ruled that evidence of the defendant’s online searches for “rape scenes” would be admissible at trial.

No worries for writers who sometimes worry about their search history—law enforcement didn’t track him on line, but arrested him after victims reported the rapes, which then resulted in more reports of similar incidents. Law enforcement officers seized his computer and discovered the evidence of his searches for incidents similar to those he was charged. I have not read the ruling—not available on line, as we discussed last month in my post about electronic court filing—but I suspect the primary issue was whether the evidence was “probative.” That is, did it make a fact at issue in the case more or less likely? No doubt the prosecutors and  defense counsel debated whether the act of searching shed any light on his guilt or innocence. As the judge might have said, objections go to weight, not admissibility.

Judge Mary Yu excluded testimony about the defendant’s attraction to Asian women and  allegations he sexually harassed co-workers. Again, I suspect that the evidence was not probative—it may be bad, but any connection to the rape allegations is too remote and speculative. A white man’s attraction to Asian women hardly indicates whether he is or isn’t a rapist. The sexual harassment allegations could be connected, depending on what they involved—innuendo or suggestive comments, on the one hand, or forceful touching or demands for sex as a condition of employment, what the law calls quid pro quo allegations, on the other. Obviously, a judge has to draw the line carefully to prevent inappropriate implications that committing one type of wrong act proves a defendant committed another and avoiding the risk of taint, while allowing the jury to see the full picture.

How might searches of your fictional suspect’s computer—by law enforcement or your amateur sleuth—uncover evidence and lead to a fight over admissibility? 

Garner* Doesn’t sound right to me, either, but Garner says it’s so, in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

4 thoughts on “Online searches as evidence in a criminal case

  1. I’m sure that you’re right and writers don’t have to worry about our research searches. That is, unless we actually commit a crime. Then we might have to worry! Especially if it’s a crime we’ve written about. We should all stay squeaky clean.

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