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Pt. 1: Electronic Evidece and the Lockdown of Broward County Schools

Yesterday, approximately 230,000 students and thousands of teachers and other school personnel were placed on a county-wide lockdown of every public school located in Broward County, Florida. This lockdown was initiated after an unidentified woman called a local radio station to say her husband was going to a school in Pembroke Pines, Florida where he would start shooting. After the caller’s statements were reported to police, the radio station sifted through its emails and found an email received yesterday that stated “something big was going to happen” involving Broward government buildings.

Living in a post-Columbine/post-911 environment, the Broward School Board went on red alert and locked-down every public school in the county as of 11:00 am yesterday morning. This was no minor feat, given the fact that the Broward County School Board oversees the sixth largest school district in the country (if I am not mistaken, Miami has the fourth largest school district).

This blog entry will be a multi-part series that addresses a number of issues relating to electronic evidence.

However, before I go any further, I want to commend the School Board for assessing this threat and initiating a proactive response in a relatively timely manner. With over 230,000 students to protect, the School Board handled the matter professionally. Panic did not ensue, parents did not make a mass-Exdous from work to schools, and it was obvious that the School Board worked cohesively with local law enforcement and the media.

While I wonder why it took two hours and ten minutes to issue a county-wide lockdown following the woman’s 8:50 a.m. call to the radio station, I still think Superintendent Notter and his staff should get credit for handling the situation well.

Hopefully the School Board and local law enforcement will also do a “post-game analysis” to see how they can improve their actions and possibly react with greater speed and efficiency in the future. I am sure the many levels of bureaucracy and chain of command slowed things down beyond what was needed or called for.

The Role of Electronic Evidence

As a criminal defense lawyer, this case interests me personally because of the great role electronic evidence has played and will continue to play in this case. While many of the facts are not known and perhaps much has not been made public, it is clear that this case concerns electronic evidence relating to email and telephones.

First and foremost, lets address the need and value of electronic evidence. What can it do for a criminal investigator or an emergency responder? What are its limitations?

Electronic evidence is an extremely valuable tool for anyone interested in solving a case. Whether that person is a police investigator, a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney, or a first responder. Electronic evidence can lead to clues about a perpetrator’s identity, about his/her capabilities, about his/her motivation for offending, and about his/her plans for future offenses.

Electronic evidence is a great intelligence tool and a great source of proof in subsequent prosecutions.

For instance, in the case of the Broward County Schools lockdown, police investigators should be able to obtain the IP addresses and account information for the woman that reported her husband’s threats and for the person who sent the email. This likely will include the name(s) of all registered account users, his/her/their mailing and home addresses, phone numbers, back-up email accounts, and biographical data such as sex, date of birth, and in some instance, social security numbers.

Such information is invaluable to investigators acting under an imminent threat who are trying to identify an offender and thwart his/her criminal intentions before they materialize.

In this regard, electronic evidence can provide investigators and first responders with clues that lead to further investigation and additional action. For instance, once police identify the account holder of the email in question or the of the phone number used to call the radio station, police can then make contact with that person to determine if they are the threatening person of if the threatening person has used their email or phone.

Obviously, the limitation of electronic evidence always lies in the fact that the real offender is using someone else’s account. However, even if this is the case, odds are the account holder knows who the offender is. Although identity theft and account hacking does occur, it is rare and calls for certain degree of sophistication on the part of the offender.

In most cases, the nut job looking to shoot up a school used his own email like a moron.

In my opinion, the ultimate limitation of electronic evidence is the speed with which it is obtained. In my work as a criminal defense lawyer and during the time I served as a state prosecutor, I heard many investigators express frustration with the amount of time and effort it takes to obtain electronic evidence such as GPS data for cellular phones. Usually, obtaining IP addresses, account information, or call logs for phones is a lot easier.

Just think of the steps that go into obtaining electronic evidence of this type. First a threat has to be made via email or cellular phone. Second, the threat has to be received and reported to police. Third, the first officer take a report, which is usually a patrolman or detective sitting at a desk, has to process the threat and report it up the chain of command. This can waste much needed time as those with authority are located, return phone calls, or otherwise become available for consultation. Fourth, the information must be processed and discussed with other people in positions of authority. Fifth, a decision on some level must be made to obtain the electronic evidence needed to identify the person making the threat. Sixth, contact must be made with third parties who may have the needed information. If the threat is not imminent, then a search warrant or subpoena will be needed. This takes even more time. Seventh, the person receiving the information request from law enforcement must send it through the third party’s chain of people that process and comply with such requests. Eight, the information must be located and copied. Ninth, the information is then provided to law enforcement. Tenth, law enforcement reviews the information and then decides what actions must then be taken.

Please keep in mind that this a very very very loose description of the process and in some cases it may actually be streamlined. However, the point is that getting account information from emails and cellular phones is not as quick as clicking a button on a screen like you may see on television.

Ultimately, the value and role of electronic evidence for police investigators, especially first responders, is sometimes diminished by the amount of time it takes police to actually obtain such information from third parties.

What needs be done in a matter of minutes can take days or even weeks in some cases. However, I am sure that the speed with which such records are produced is commensurate with the imminent needs of law enforcement. I am confidant that third party information and record holders would act swiftly in the face of an imminent danger such as an act of war or a major threat to public safety.

In the next entry, I will be discussing the role of electronic evidence in criminal prosecutions and some of the legal issues such evidence presents for criminal lawyers and prosecutors alike.

Stay tuned…

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