Accessibility links


Social Networking Could Land You in Jail

  • Tom Banse

Law enforcement officers in Olympia, Washington are cruising social networking sites like YouTube to find evidence of potential criminal activity, such as off-roading on public lands.

Law enforcement targets alleged lawbreakers who post their adventures online

Social networking websites such as Facebook or YouTube are filled with images of people exercising poor judgment in the real world and then compounding it, by posting those videos online.

Now, these self-incriminating Internet postings are helping cops like Larry Raedel fight crime on public land.

Cruising YouTube

Raedel, the police chief for Washington state forests, surfs over to YouTube and enters "4x4... off road... in Capitol Forest" into the search window.

Up pop dozens of short videos. They depict customized Jeeps, Toyotas and Broncos spinning their over-sized tires in the mud, scaling stumps, or driving down creek beds.

He clicks on one, and watches it for a moment. "They're going through water here which is habitat in some cases," he explains, pointing to the screen. "They're eroding the soils. Eventually, this may work its way down into a stream that may be fish-bearing and could cause some problems that way with erosion and habitat."

Making a case against illegal off-roading

Many public forests include designated trails for off-road vehicles, but this doesn't look like one. Blazing rogue trails is a misdemeanor and Raedel can also pursue a driver for civil damages.

To make a case with YouTube, officers need to extract a license plate and identify some landmark that confirms the illegal off-roading is happening in their jurisdiction.

"There was clearly a plate on that vehicle going by," Raedel says, as he replays the video. "Here's another one, on here. It's a Washington license plate on it. We can clearly make that particular plate out. So this is what we're looking for on these sites."

Larry Raedel has yet to test the admissibility of a self-incriminating internet video in court.

Tracking offenders

But YouTube detective work cracked one recent case. It began with a tip from a web-surfing Fish and Wildlife officer in Arizona.

What caught that officer's eye was a post seeking helpers to blaze a new unauthorized trail. The cops traced the item to a 17-year-old boy in southwest Washington.

A phone call from Chief Raedel resolved the case.

"We were able to talk to him, educate him and he has apologized several times. As a result, we have now been able to put him to work for [the Washington State Department of Natural Resources]. Instead of creating an enemy now, we have an ally that's going to be helping us."

Growing demand

This episode and others reflect pent-up demand for legitimate trails for all-terrain vehicles.

Crystal Crowder is president of an off-road club in Clark County, Washington, called Piston's Wild. She's frustrated by the painfully slow process to establish new routes. The club website includes an online forum and user videos.

"The Internet has been a tremendous boon for us to be able to reach out to thousands of people and share the word with them. You know, tread lightly. Stay on the trail. Don't build new trails," she says, adding that following the rules will be rewarded with more areas to ride in or more areas being opened up.

Crowder says she doesn't have a problem with cops perusing her site, noting that members already police each other to put their sport in the best possible light.

"Where someone may post up and say, 'Look what I did! I did this horrible thing I should not have been doing,' a large group of peers will generally jump on that and discipline that person online and kind of teach them a lesson about what's right and what's wrong."

Crowder doesn't want the face of her sport to be defined by YouTube postings depicting questonable activity.

It's also not a failsafe crimefighting method for the cops. Some people who post on YouTube do cover their license plates or otherwise conceal their identity. Which goes to show why officers consider the Internet useful, but it's no substitute for getting out into the woods.