YouTube Posting Leads to Arrests in an Assault

By Juli S. Charkes, The New York Times
March 9, 2008

THE Ossining police relied on a vital piece of evidence in their decision late last month to charge four high school students with first-degree gang assault: video images of the crime that were posted on YouTube by one of the teenagers after he used the camera on his cellphone to record the attack, the police said.

The incident shows the potential legal consequences of an increasingly common phenomenon of using the virtual world to recount exploits, even when they veer into the realm of criminality.

“I don’t think these kids understand just what is at stake when they post something online, how this can ultimately be used against them,” said Detective Lt. William Sullivan of the Ossining Police Department.

Lieutenant Sullivan said the police were tipped off about the Web posting after interviewing students at Ossining High School about a separate stabbing incident involving a teenager from Yonkers. (The police are continuing to investigate whether the incidents may be related.)

The YouTube posting, a little more than a minute long, depicted three Ossining High students attacking an 18-year-old youth in the Trinity Episcopal Church parking lot. It shows punching and kicking; at one point, a pocketknife brandished by the victim was used against him by one of the other youths, causing a superficial six-inch gash, Lieutenant Sullivan said.

“It’s all right there,” he said.

It was the second local arrest in the past month that was linked to the Web-sharing Internet site YouTube. The police in Central Nyack charged a rap singer with two counts of third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, a felony; last year, the singer had posted a video online alleging illegal drug use by teenagers in the community, said Sgt. Harry Baumann of the Clarkstown Police Department.

Prosecutorial power is enhanced when evidence of a crime is so easily accessible, said Randolph M. McLaughlin, a Pace Law School professor.

“If it hadn’t been posted online, police would have had to go through traditional procedural steps to obtain access to that evidence, such as obtaining a subpoena, testifying before a grand jury,” he said. “By making this available in such a public forum for everyone to see, it becomes a very efficient investigatory tool.”

It can also be a persuasive one to a jury. “It’s hard to tell someone that what they are looking at with their own eyes is not plausible,” Professor McLaughlin said.

But while evidence may be more readily accessible if it has been posted online, determining the authenticity of electronic images can be far more complicated, Professor McLaughlin said.

“How do we know that this wasn’t in some way manipulated, edited, spliced?” he asked. “Anytime you have some type of video representation of a crime, beginning back with Rodney King, there will be attempts to attack the credibility of what is being portrayed.”

The posting of the Ossining assault was pulled from YouTube after the police made their arrests, but investigators have retained a copy. According to Lieutenant Sullivan, their investigation includes whether the teenagers charged were part of a gang. “We are not ruling that out,” he said.

Gang or youth violence is a serious problem in Westchester, said Jim Bostic, director of the Nepperhan Community Center in Yonkers and chairman of the City of Yonkers Violence and Gang Prevention Coalition. “You have no idea how many of these kids are involved in a gang without their parents knowing,” he said.

Mr. Bostic said he and other coalition members have witnessed increased use of the Internet by gang members, not only as a means of direct communication, but also as a way to post identifying signs that used to take the form of clothing or graffiti but are now represented in a much more subtle electronic form.

“The whole language of how gangs communicate has changed,” he said. “Law enforcement has tried to make the adjustments, but it is extremely difficult when you are dealing with nontraditional means.”

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