Can Law Enforcement Forensics Labs Keep Up with the Explosion of Digital Devices?

A new case arising out of White Oak, TX helps to illustrate not only the slippery slope of teacher-student cell phone communications, but the enormous challenges law enforcement officials face in investigating charges of digital misconduct.

At the beginning of May, the news broke that an educator in the White Oaks Independent School District had been placed on administrative leave while the White Oak Police Department investigates allegations that he sent inappropriate text messages to a female student. Michael Gilbert, the superintendent of the White Oaks ISD, issued a public statement saying that the name of the individual would not be released until such time as charges were filed:

Over the past week and a half, White Oak ISD has been cooperating with the White Oak Police Department in an investigation of a WOISD Staff member. Allegations have been made that this individual was involved in an inappropriate electronic messaging conversation.

The issue was first brought to the attention of school personnel and quickly turned over to law enforcement officers due to the nature of the allegations. White Oak PD has interviewed several individuals and is looking at information that will be used to determine the next steps to be taken in this process.

It is and will continue to be the position of the district that there will be no confirmation of anyone involved in this stage of the investigative process. The district has taken steps to ensure the safety of all students and will continue to monitor the investigation as it develops. It is not our intent to hinder and/or interfere with the police investigation in any way.

It has been reported to me by both print and television news media that calls have been made to the press offering names and information about the case. These same outlets have requested that I confirm details that are not appropriate for this stage of the investigation. … When facts are in place to indicate further action is required, the district will act accordingly. Along those same lines, if the facts do not support the allegations, releasing the name would be terribly irresponsible.

Local television KYTX obtained a copy of the search warrant application filed by the police department. Among other things, the warrant application alleged that the educator sent an unsolicited photo of his genitals to a female student under the age of 14 and asked her to perform oral sex on him.

The educator allegedly used Kik and Instagram to communicate with the girl, and asked her to delete the messages before anyone saw them. Instead, the girl showed the messages to a friend and then reported the exchange to the school district. He allegedly later demanded that the girl come up with a story that would not cost him his job.

The actions of the educator, if true, are another discouraging example of the type of misconduct that is so easily facilitated by digital devices and social media apps. Whether inappropriate conduct occurred will rest largely on the results of the computer forensics exams that the police conduct on the educator’s devices. In this case (as in so many others), the investigation may takes months.

According KYTX, the return on the search warrant filed by the police states that investigators seized “[f]ive computers, two cell phones, hard drives and memory cards” from the educator’s home. That is not an unusual haul of devices. State and federal computer forensics labs are groaning under the volume of material that they are asked to review. The work is detailed and often highly technical, and the steady and rapid rise in storage capacity means that every case is taking longer. The forensics examiners with whom I work are putting in long hours, but it’s not clear as a practical matter that this state of affairs can continue. At some point, the volume of work and the time required to process digital evidence will start to raise speedy trial issues under the Sixth Amendment.

I’m not sure what the answer is, although I suspect that there is some triage occurring in prosecutor offices around the country. Increasingly, full-blown computer forensics will be reserved for the most serious offenses, unless technological advances make the processing of evidence much faster and more automated. But of course, that would raise other issues, not least of which is how far we will be willing go in letting computers evaluate evidence and make determinations of guilt or innocence.

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