In the chaos of the October weekend when hordes of young adults spilled into the streets and backyards around the Keene State College campus, cameras were everywhere.
Photos of people throwing bottles and flipping a car quickly made their way online, and in the following weeks police and prosecutors have had to decide how to use and corroborate that evidence under still-evolving standards.
Some of the photos police saw came from the smartphones of party-goers excited to document and share the action on Facebook, Instagram and an anonymous messaging app called Yik Yak, according to Keene police detective Lt. James F. McLaughlin.
Then there were angry neighbors, arming themselves with photographic evidence they hoped would be usable in the days to come to help punish the young people who were ruining their lawns and starting a fire on their street.
When the photos and video were posted online or sent in to police, law enforcement officials said they identified more than a dozen people who have since been charged with crimes.
McLaughlin said such photographic evidence could not have been possible until recently.
“Before the age when people had smartphones that record video and audio, you basically just had testimonial evidence,” he said.
Through the police department’s anonymous online reporting system; Keene State’s Silent Witness program; and a system developed after the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon, people could anonymously upload their photos of an incident for police to use in their investigations.
Then, McLaughlin said, he talked to the people who submitted photos, trying to extract the valuable evidence.
“That basically generates the contacts,” he said.
McLaughlin said about half of the people in photos submitted were inaccurately identified by their accusers.
Police also used a technology on loan to them from the federal government to find and sort photos posted online based on where they were taken.
“I can bring up the map of Keene or the college specifically and go by street, and I can ask the computer to go on the Internet and find out where people were posting from,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said the department is trying to decide whether it wants to continue using that program.
“Even though people do outrageous things on the Internet, anonymously or directly associated with their (social media) account, there’s a certain amount of ‘Big Brother’ considerations to think about,” he said. “That’s the uncomfortable piece that we have to discuss.”
Some people may have posted their photos, not aware that the illegal activities they portrayed could be used as evidence for arrest or in court.
Others may have appeared in the background of photographs without realizing they were being taken.
In the court of public opinion, any student who was captured on film was guilty — angry Keene residents gathered photos of the suspected rioters and have demanded online and in public forums that they be brought to justice.
But photos posted on Facebook or submitted to the police aren’t usually used alone, either as a reason for arrest or in court, according to Cheshire County Attorney D. Chris McLaughlin.
When the people charged with committing crimes during the Oct. 18-19 riots get their day in court, any photos or video that police say show them committing a crime will have to be backed up by a witness.
Chris McLaughlin said the protocol for using online evidence in court is changing as the ways people use the Internet change.
“It’s evolving,” he said.
Peter R. Stevenson, a former juvenile probation officer and a professor in Keene State’s department of sociology, anthropology and criminology, said lawyers and judges are still grappling with each new case that challenges what kind of digital police and prosecutors can fairly gather and use.
“There’s no real set precedence,” he said.
Courts generally follow a “silent witness” rule that allows them to accept video evidence without a witness as long as the process that produced the video is shown to be sound.
Chris McLaughlin said it’s always better to bring a witness into court to back up the video or photographic evidence.
“I’m not necessarily going to rely on Facebook to prove a case ... it’s more helpful if there’s a person to corroborate it,” he said. “They can then look at the video and say, ‘Yes, I was there and this video is a fair and accurate depiction,’ ” McLaughlin said.
Stevenson said while online evidence can’t be used alone, most young people don’t think that what they put on their Instagram accounts can be used to implicate them in a crime.
“I don’t think they really realize how big a digital footprint they’re leaving behind,” Stevenson said.
Lt. McLaughlin compared the abundance of smartphone cameras to an extended network of security cameras.
“Anyone in an urban setting who causes any kind of public commotion is caught on cameras and uploaded to the Internet whether they want it or not,” he said. “The average citizens, as they walk around … have no idea of the number of cameras you’re on, it’s incredible,” he said.
He said while police and prosecutors like to have a witness to back it up, the photographic evidence can provide an objective account of an incident.
A witness’ account “goes through the filter of a person’s perspective,” he said. Having video “somewhat minimizes the amount of evidence you need from other sources.”