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    Snapchat gotcha: Feds are sending people to prison after snaps show gangs, guns, ammo

    By Michael Loria, USA TODAY,

    2024-06-12

    A Boston man sends videos on Snapchat and gets six years in prison. The reason: Federal agents spotted illegal gun activity in the snippets.

    Trevon Bell was sentenced for being a felon in possession of a firearm after law enforcement intercepted snaps showing the 27-year-old posing with guns on the social media platform better known as a haven for teens, Department of Justice officials announced this week . At the time he made the Snapchat videos, Bell was under house arrest for three state firearm charges.

    The case of the Boston-area gang member is the latest in a string of investigations across the USA where federal agents have brought gun charges after watching social interactions on Snapchat, establishing probable cause to get a search warrant or to gather court-ordered evidence approved by a judge.

    "A lot of people don’t realize how exposed they are," says John P. Gross, a University of Wisconsin, Madison, law professor and former public defender who's seen social media play a big part in criminal cases. "That’s all stuff the government can find and gain access to."

    Snapchat is seen prominently over the past year in federal courtrooms and plea agreements reviewed by USA TODAY. Messages and videos that disappear quickly give Snapchat its allure and fuel a sense of privacy. But cops and federal agents are uncovering a trove of content to watch in real time, many showing convicted felons showing off guns and boasting of violence online.

    The result: Pictures worth a thousand words end up being worth thousands of days in prison.

    Snapchat and other social media platforms declined to comment for this story but directed USA TODAY to company transparency reports that show a high level of cooperation with law enforcement.

    Data also show the number of requests from law enforcement for private information is booming.

    Recent cases include a Minnesota “ machinegun distribution ring ” operating on the platform; a Texas man intimidating a courtroom witness ; and an Iowa man illegally in possession of an AR-15 rifle and threatening to shoot people .

    Experts say the social media content gives prosecutors a decisive weapon, providing real-time video and photo evidence of planned or past crimes. They also say the public should be aware that even presumably private conversations on social media may be monitored by feds and local cops armed with court orders.

    ‘Gang Members Only’ Snapchat group

    Bell was one of several Boston-area gang members that agents found sharing snaps of guns, according to court filings in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts.

    All were under court supervision, and were either previously convicted on gun charges or had pending firearm offenses, according to the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing memorandum.

    They posted the snaps to a group titled “Gang Members Only,” according to court filings.

    Bell, a member of a group calling themselves "the Heath Street gang," was posting videos of himself with a black semi-automatic Glock 9mm pistol.

    Investigators linked him to an account named “jurassic_trot” based on selfies he shared, court documents say. One of his snaps included a post to a rival gang’s chat of him racking the Glock in a mall bathroom, according to court papers. Bell was under house arrest but was given permission to leave home to attend his son’s birthday party. Investigators traced the gun and linked it to Bell through the snaps.

    The last time Bell was in prison, acting U.S. Attorney Joshua S. Levy noted, he “incredibly” called in to the taping of a podcast to announce he would “soon be released and ready to confront rivals.”

    The U.S. District of Massachusetts has brought gun charges against other Boston-area gang members who posted to the same Gang Members Only Snapchat group, according to court documents:

    • Freily Cabral , 25, pleaded guilty in August 2023 to illegally possessing firearms after the D Street gang member was identified posting pictures of himself with five firearms on Snapchat. His sentencing is scheduled for July 8.
    • Dumari Shakur Scarlett-Dixon , also a Heath Street gang member, was sentenced to over two years in prison and three years of supervised release in April. The 22-year-old pleaded guilty to being an unlawful drug user in possession of a firearm and ammunition he posed with on Snapchat.
    • Dane Mitchell , 32, was sentenced to seven years in prison and three years of supervised release in March for illegally possessing a firearm with a defaced serial number. Mitchell regularly posted snaps of himself with guns.

    The 4th Amendment and online information

    Jim Dempsey is a senior policy adviser at the Stanford Program on Geopolitics and an expert in how the 4th Amendment is applied to online information to protect people from unreasonable search and seizure by the government.

    He said the field has changed tremendously over the past few decades as technology evolves. But one constant in the battle is how people incriminate themselves via social media.

    “It would have to be an extraordinarily clueless police department that didn’t utilize the investigative value of digital information," Dempsey said.

    Evidence grabbed from social media is a bonanza for federal agents because it can show not only people caught in the act of a crime, but also gives cops the exact time and place when it happened.

    "I've seen a lot of self-inflicted wounds on social media, and law enforcement is more than happy to take the layup,” says Gross, the former public defender and law professor. "If they can walk in and show that to the jury, there’s nothing I can do as a defense attorney about that kind of evidence that you, the defendant, are creating to connect you to the crime.”

    At Snapchat, a company with hundreds of millions of users, the number of requests has grown nearly 3,000% since it first began releasing transparency reports in 2015.

    The first report covering January to June 2015 , showed 762 requests for snap data from American law enforcement, plus 75 requests for data from 12 other countries. Its most recent report covering July to December 2023 , showed 22,326 requests for data in the U.S. alone. About 80% of requests were honored. There were 20,000 requests from outside the U.S.

    Around 60% of data is requested via search warrant and 26% are obtained via subpoena.

    ‘Machinegun distribution ring’ caught in Snapchat sting

    Cops can learn a lot when criminals accept their friend requests.

    In the Midwest, federal agents in Minnesota said they broke up a “social media-based machinegun distribution ring” in a sting operation that involved an agent going undercover to interact with criminals on Snapchat, Justice officials said.

    The trio posted about firearms and other controlled substances to a group called “BLICCS&STICCS3,” according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota. The videos showed the group was promoting and selling conversion devices to turn pistols or rifles into fully automatic machine guns.

    The group was charged after they tried selling the switch devices to an undercover agent who posted snaps of himself with a prop firearm, federal prosecutors said.

    The men were identified in federal court papers as Rafael Carter Wesley, 19; Kyrees Darious Johnson, 22; and Avont Akira Drayton, 21. They are each charged in separate criminal complaints with one count of unlawful possession of machine guns, officials said.

    Prosecutors say the ring spearheaded three deals with the undercover agent between March 20 and April 12, 2023, for a total of six switches for machine-gun modification that cost at least $1,800. There was also a $700 deal was for a Glock 17 with a removed serial number that was modified for full automatic firing, according to court papers.

    Gangs use Facebook, too

    Snapchat isn’t the only platform law enforcement is watching for criminals. Justice Department news releases show investigators also look for illegal guns on Instagram and Facebook, typically involving people using live video. Like on Snapchat, such videos have a short life span and often give users a sense of security that their communications will soon disappear into the ether.

    The Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted several other criminals through such social media activity: Ernest “Yo Pesci” Johnson was sentenced to over 8 years in prison for illegal possession of a firearm in February 2023; and Vincent “Fatz” Caruso, the leader of the Crips gang, was sentenced to over 20 years in prison in 2022 for crimes including possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, according to the U.S. attorney’s office .

    “Mr. Johnson brazenly flaunted his arsenal through livestream videos,” acting U.S. Attorney Joshua S. Levy said of Johnson. “His behavior, both on and off social media, promoted violence and a complete disregard for the rule of law. His days as a social media influencer for criminal enterprises have ended.”

    Caruso had a penchant for Snapchat and took snaps of Johnson “looking on approvingly” as Caruso handled a machine gun, according to court documents. In another video, Caruso handles tens of thousands of fentanyl pills.

    “You won’t be hearing from them on Instagram for a long, long time,” Levy said of Caruso and another convicted co-conspirator.

    Transparency reports from Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, chart a tremendous increase in law enforcement requests since 2013.

    The company received 25,600 requests for data from January to June of 2013; 41,200 requests during the same six-month period of Snapchat’s first report; and 301,553 requests in its latest July to December 2023 report. Of those requests, 73,400 came from inside the United States. Meta granted 78% of requests.

    A spokesperson for Meta said the company “responds to government requests for data in accordance with applicable law and our terms of service. Each and every request we receive is carefully reviewed for legal sufficiency and we may reject or require greater specificity on requests that appear overly broad or vague.”

    TikTok's July to December 2023 report shows it received 12,550 requests from law enforcement.

    How exactly do agents record or obtain the live videos?

    Justice Department officials declined to comment on how they get incriminating social media videos, which should come as a warning to all users, Gross said.

    “Is it really gone or is it in the cloud somewhere law enforcement can go looking for it?” Gross asked. “That's why this stuff is so valuable, you're letting the genie out of the bottle. You don’t know where it’s going to go, you don’t have a lot of control or privacy over what you're putting out on these platforms.”

    Snapchat says it deletes snaps as soon as they are viewed , though data including the date, time, sender and receiver, are preserved for 30 days or more .

    Company transparency reports show dozens of requests for wiretaps from government agencies.

    Gross said he fears companies and law enforcement will soon use artificial intelligence to review social media users' private data.

    “It’s going to put this all on steroids,” he warned. “Law enforcement is looking at this tech and at how they can deploy it in all sorts of ways."

    More Snapchat cases

    Around the country, law enforcement has begun conducting searches of Snapchat and other social accounts to investigate criminals and aid in bringing charges.

    • In Davenport, Iowa, investigators sentenced a man to nearly four years in prison for illegal possession of a AR-15 rifle they discovered he had in reviewing his Snapchat account, according to the Southern District of Iowa U.S. Attorney's Office . One snap showed Davante Shamod Howard, 24, threatening to shoot people.
    • A man from Texas was sent to prison for obstructing justice after threatening a federal agent via Snapchat. Hector Reyes Jr., 20, uploaded a message from a high-ranking member of the Gulf Cartel warning the agent not to testify against him, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas .
    • Snapchat video helped Minnesota law enforcement connect James William Turner to the shooting of an 11-year-old child, according to the Department of Justice . The video obtained by investigators shows the 44-year-old speaking angrily outside the child’s house and in possession of an AR-15 minutes prior to the shooting.

    This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Snapchat gotcha: Feds are sending people to prison after snaps show gangs, guns, ammo

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