Admitting Chat Transcripts And Usernames From A Computer As Non-Hearsay

Before admitting chat, usernames and other content from the records of a seized computer, what showing must be made to connect the contents to the computer user? The Eighth Circuit reviewed the admissibility of chat transcripts and usernames in a recent child pornography trial, in United States v. Manning, 738 F.3d 937 (8th Cir. Jan. 3, 2014) (No. 13-1016)



Records found on a computer can present hearsay issues if the statements from the computer records are offered for the truth of the matter asserted. The Eighth Circuit recently considered the admissibility of chat transcripts and user names found on a computer.

Trial Court Proceedings: Admitting Chat Transcripts And Usernames

Defendant Manning was charged with the receipt of, and possession of child pornography after an investigation and search warrant was executed at his residence. During the search, state law enforcement officers seized three compact discs and a laptop computer. One disc, a Memorex disc, was determined to contained 14 videos of child pornography. A forensic examination of the media revealed "1,029 images and 49 video files on the laptop, all depicting child pornography" and "several online chat conversations ... by a person employing the usernames 'boost_virgin' and 'mem659.' During these conversations, the person operating under username "boost_virgin" said at various times that he was 31 years old, from Missouri, five feet eight inches tall, and the father of two sons who were 6 and 10 years old. Based on this identifying information and the fact that the chats were conducted by a person using Manning's laptop, law enforcement determined it was Manning, operating under the user names 'boost_virgin' and 'mem659,' who engaged in these chats with other unknown individuals from the internet." Manning, 738 F.3d at 941.

At trial, the defendant "objected to the admission of any of the chat conversations, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to establish that he was one of the participants in the chats and that they therefore constituted inadmissible hearsay." The trial court overruled the objection after concluding there was a sufficient basis to connect the defendant to the computer and its contents. The jury convicted the defendant on the charges and he was sentenced to serve 360 months in prison. On appeal, the defendant challenged the admission of the "chat transcripts related to the usernames 'boost_virgin' and 'mem659' discovered on" his seized computer which "were used to establish Manning's interest in trading child pornography online, as well as his sexual interest in children." Manning, 738 F.3d at 942-43.

Eighth Circuit Review: Non-Hearsay Bases Identified For Admission

The circuit noted that the trial court that “portions of the chats contained identifying information about Manning” and that the defendant had “admitted adopting the username ‘mem659’ for his computer account” which “was the same one used in some of the chats.” The circuit concluded that this “identifying information, coupled with the undisputed fact that the chats were found on Manning's personal laptop found in a home where he lived alone, was sufficient for the district court to find that Manning was the person participating in the chats under the usernames ‘boost_virgin’ and ‘mem659.’" Manning, 738 F.3d at 943.

The Eighth Circuit concluded a further reason supported the admission of the chat: “as circumstantial evidence (i.e., a non-hearsay purpose) associating Manning with the child pornography found on his computer.” Manning, 738 F.3d at 943 (citing United States v. Koch, 625 F.3d 470, 479-80 (8th Cir. 2010) (admitting documents found on a computer and flash drive that contained information identifying the defendant as circumstantial evidence associating the defendant with the computer and flash drive)).

Finally, the statements of unidentified third parties on the chat transcripts were admissible as non-hearsay to “provide context for Manning's responses.” Manning, 738 F.3d at 943-44 (citing United States v. Cooke, 675 F.3d 1153, 1156-57 (8th Cir. 2012) (statements of an unknown individual in a sexually explicit email exchange with the defendant were not hearsay because they provided context for the defendant's response and the truth of the statement was immaterial); United States v. Burt, 495 F.3d 733, 738–39 (7th Cir. 2007) (online chat conversations discussing child pornography were not offered for their truth but to provide context for defendant's admissions)),

Conclusion

The Manning case shows the analysis that may be used to determine whether the contents of a computer may be admitted against the purported computer user. First, the court may consider evidence that may link the individual to the computer. As an alternative basis, the circuit noted the computer records could be admitted “as circumstantial evidence (i.e., a non-hearsay purpose) associating" the individual with the records found on his computer. Both methods of proof require a sufficient showing to connect the individual to the computer. Once this nexus is made, the statements of others may be admitted as non-hearsay to provide context to the statements made by the defendant.

For more on the Koch case, see Computer User Name, Authored Files and Manufacturer’s Inscription Was Not Hearsay Evidence.

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Photo Description: Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, MO. Learn more about the 29-story courthouse which was named after former U.S. Senator Eagleton.

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