The photographs showed three young men posing with a pair of pistols. The trio had been taking selfies with a Sigma and a Glock, both loaded, and posting them to Instagram.
What the three didn’t know was that San Francisco Police Department’s “Instagram officers” were on patrol, virtually scanning social media for law breakers and the like.
Details from that 2013 case comes from court documents that show the extent to which social media has permeated policing techniques and how police use social media in The City to investigate crimes and prosecute suspects.
The case also details the technology police use to extract evidence from cellphones and how unaware some people seem to be to the snooping.
On that day in 2013, officers Eduard Ochoa and Dave Johnson were on duty, according to the appeals court decision in the case, which denied requests by one of the youths to bar the use of incriminating photos taken on one of the defendants’ cellphones.
After scanning social media, Ochoa noticed the three posing young men from prior interactions with police. Two of the suspects were minors at the time, and one of them was on probation. The third suspect, Marquis Mendez, was an adult and a wanted felon.
Throughout the day on Oct. 21, 2013, “Officer Ochoa scanned Instagram, a social media website, looking for postings. Officer Ochoa was the ‘Instagram officer’ in his department and had been so for three or four years” noted the appeals court decision granting the use of cellphone images as evidence.
Ochoa testified that he saw the juvenile who had filed the appeal and Marquis Mendez “possessing a firearm at one point or another in these [Instagram] photographs. I knew [the first youth] was on probation … I knew Mr. [Mendez] was a wanted felon and was [a] prohibited person.”
Since one of the youths was on probation and another wanted, no search warrant was needed to enter the Hunters Point apartment they were inside. Later that day, the two officers along with others headed to the apartment. All three of the suspects were arrested for illegally possessing guns. The police also recovered the two pistols used in the Instagram post.
But the investigation was not complete. According to the documents, Officer Steven Woods testified that a computer software called “Cellebrite” was used to extract cell phone data from the three.
That software produced a 37-page report that included photographs, text messages, incoming and outgoing calls, plus email contacts and application information.
It was ultimately screenshots taken from Mendez’s phone of the Instagram post of the three posing with the weapons that helped convict them of illegal weapons possession.
San Francisco police did not return calls for comment.