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Can text messages be used as legal evidence?

| Written by Altlaw

With the world sending 23 billion texts every day, it’s no surprise that SMS messages play such a key role in many modern cases.

Many assume their text messages are private and can reveal anything without repercussion, but this isn’t always the case. Police authorities can request warrants to search messages on a phone and legal professionals can present relevant texts as legal evidence in court.

However, text messages aren’t always useable in the courtroom. This blog post will look into when messages can be used as evidence, alongside famous examples of texts swaying a courtroom decision.


The ever-growing landscape of digital evidence

Text messages have been around for a while, with the first text sent on 3rd December 1992. At first, texts had a 160-character limit, but they can now include emojis, videos, pictures, GIFs and more. 

Due to the popularity of SMS messaging, many cases have been decided on texts provided in the courtroom. Once a text message has been sent, it can swing a case. Text messages can often show motives to commit a crime or a person’s state of mind during the time of an alleged offence.

However, although text messages can be used in court as legal evidence, they aren’t automatically admissible.

And it isn't just text messages lawyers have to deal with. Social media posts and other forms of digital communication can be used as evidence in court to decide the fate of a trial.


When can text messages be used in court?

Text messages — among other forms of electronically stored information (ESI) — must be legally obtained and properly preserved as evidence, or a court won't pass them as authentic.

Texts must be presented in a format that shows more than just the sender or receiver’s name, with information proving their relevance. For example, the phone number that has sent the messages. A court order can be obtained if a person doesn’t voluntarily provide their phone.

There are also instances when text messages may have been deleted to cover up evidence. In these circumstances, texts can still be obtained from the receiver’s phone or from the phone’s service provider for a limited time.

Many famous cases involving celebrities have included text messages used as legal evidence in a court of law.


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Examples of text messages being used in court

Text messages have been used as legal evidence in many prominent cases, just as they are in ordinary cases around the world on a daily basis.


Depp v Heard

In the trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, Heard’s lawyers presented a series of graphic texts as they cross-examined Depp. They showed the court several graphic text messages between Depp and British actor Paul Bettany, in which they spoke of ‘burning’ and ‘drowning’ Heard.

In a statement, Depp said the texts were about a Monty Python scene, which he claimed to have testified to be one of his favourite films.

After the texts were shown, Sky News reported that there was a ‘definite shift in mood’ compared to the previous day.


'Deflategate' in the NFL

Texts have also been used in professional sports amid allegations of cheating in the NFL. A series of texts were revealed between staff of the NFL’s New England Patriots, which suggested the team may be cheating to win games.

An article from Sports Illustrated said, “New England Patriots personnel likely manipulated the air pressure of the footballs in their game against the Indianapolis Colts” to win the game.

Information about this scandal came to fruition from a series of text messages in which Jim McNally, the Patriots locker room attendant, named himself as ‘the deflator.’

The texts were used as crucial forms of evidence in the investigation against the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady claimed he had destroyed the phone that was allegedly part of the scandal and, as a result, was suspended for four games by the NFL.


The Michelle Carter case

The case against Michelle Carter in the United States drew national attention after she sent text messages to her boyfriend, convincing him to commit suicide.

Her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, tragically took his own life in 2014.

Carter repeatedly sent texts to Roy, which were later used as evidence in the case. She was sentenced to 15 months in prison and five years of probation in 2017 after being convicted of manslaughter.


Learn digital evidence best practices with our Content Hub

The modern litigation professional must understand and use digital evidence — sometimes on a large scale.

Plus, digital evidence can go further than just what’s on the surface. Legitimacy and credibility of evidence can be proved by metadata, which describes the data behind the data of files and documents. Metadata attaches itself to all electronic files, leaving information about the who, what, when and where of documents, which can be cross-referenced with digital evidence during review.

Therefore, knowing how to obtain and preserve ESI to use as evidence is crucial. Thankfully, you can learn all of this and more by accessing our Content Hub. You only have to sign up once, and you'll gain unlimited access to all of our educational resources — for free.

Don't miss out on this excellent opportunity to further your understanding on eDiscovery, digital evidence and more. Click below to get started.