Up for Discussion: Should Criminal Lawyers Engage in Crowdsourcing Criminal Investigations?

Are we seeing a new model of legal advocacy in which lawyers turn to the crowd for help in raising funds, interest, and even finding evidence?

There are apps and websites that have online crowds investigating criminal cases. The site Reddit attracted an active community of people gathering evidence, forwarding theories, and seeking out witness statements around the murder case profiled in the Serial podcast. In the yet-to-be-released app CrowdSolve, users will become “citizen investigators” who will hunt down details and answer questions to feed into criminal investigations.

It’s not always up to the lawyers whether their case ends up in an online forum. In the case of Serial, the community of Redditors decided on their own to begin investigating the murder case after listening to its story on the radio. The lawyer who brought the case to the media originally intended for professional journalists to be looking into the case, but the online crowd seized on the story and began its own ferventif not potentially unethicalinvestigations.

Is crowdsourcing criminal investigations something that criminal lawyersprosecutors or defenseshould engage in?


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Larry Marshall

Lawrence C. Marshall, professor of law and co-founder of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, says, “If new technologies provide a means through which some of that disparity can be mitigated by defense lawyers enlisting the assistance of ‘citizen investigators,’ that is certainly a positive development.”

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Bob Weisberg

Robert Weisberg, Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law and the Faculty Co-Director Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School, says, “No good can come of this. The ratio of truth to posting volume is poor.”

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Thea Johnson

Thea Johnson, a Thomas C. Grey Fellow at Stanford Law says, “[D]efendersat all stages of a criminal caseshould approach this invention with cautious optimism and a lot of advice from their in-house ethics counsel.”

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Ron Tyler

Ronald C. Tyler, associate professor of law and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Stanford Law, says, “Public participation in criminal investigations should be sharply limited.”

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1 Response to Up for Discussion: Should Criminal Lawyers Engage in Crowdsourcing Criminal Investigations?
  1. All of the concerns about and dangers arising from “crowdsourcing” criminal investigations mentioned by the four commentators are legitimate and need to be addressed by the Bar (especially the ethical issues) and the Legislature (especially the invasion of privacy issues). As a former federal criminal investigator I note that there is an additional danger that was not discussed by any of the four commentators: Contamination of evidence as the Crowd plods unprofessionally through it. If hordes of people actual investigate rather than simply pontificate, there is a substantial probability that evidence will be destroyed or damaged, witness memories altered or augmented, witnesses intimidated, and police or other professional investigations hampered. One need only look at the irreparable damage done to hundreds of archaeological sites by amateur archaeologists in the late 19th-early 20th-centuries. Untrained amateur investigators inevitably ruin ancient sites because they don’t know what is important to preserve and they don’t know how in any case. This unfortunate result applies to amateur sleuths as well. Unfortunately in this age of “instant everything” and “online I’m fine” there is probably nothing much that can be done except to regulate how lawyers participate in the process.

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