Home / World Business
Sat, Jun 12, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Text messaging gaining clout inside courtrooms

DELETING NOT ERASING Phone companies are being ordered by judges in the US and other countries to turn over messages long after they were delivered


A few hours after NBA star Kobe Bryant had sex with a Vail-area hotel worker last summer, the woman exchanged cellphone text messages with a former boyfriend and someone else.

What's in those messages could help determine whether the sex was consensual or whether Bryant is guilty of rape as charged. The judge himself said the content may be "highly relevant" to the case.

That the judge could order the woman's cellphone company to produce the messages so long after they were sent shouldn't surprise anyone, analysts say.

Texters beware. Like e-mail and Internet instant messages, text messages tend to be saved on servers.

"One of the false assumptions that people make is that when they hit the delete button, messages are gone forever, but nothing can be further from the truth," said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst in Atlanta.

The Bryant case appears to be the first high-profile US criminal case in which cellphone text messages could be entered into the docket. In Europe and Asia, where texting is hugely popular, some criminal cases have hinged on them.

In Sweden, police and prosecutors used text messages to prove that a nanny influenced by a pastor of a religious sect shot and killed his wife while she slept and then killed a neighbor next door with whom she was alleged to be having an affair.

And police in southern Japan are examining e-mail and text messages as part of the investigation into the recent box-cutter killing of a 12-year-old girl, allegedly by an 11-year-old classmate.

In the US, text messages had a role in a Medford, Oregon, case in which a man convicted of killing his wife had sent e-mail and text messages to terrorize her.

In Conyers, Georgia, a 17-year-old boy was arrested for investigation of solicitation of sodomy after a 12-year-old girl's parents complained of sexually explicit messages she had received.

In the Bryant case, defense attorneys said text messages were exchanged among the woman who has accused Bryant of rape and two other people -- the former boyfriend and a person as yet unidentified -- in the hours after the alleged June 30 attack.

Four months later, Bryant's attorneys subpoenaed AT&T Wireless Communications, seeking the messages. The firm fought the subpoena, but retained the messages. The company fought the subpoena, but last month state District Judge Terry Ruckriegle ordered the company to turn the messages over to him.

He will review them in private to determine whether they are relevant to the case, in which Bryant has pleaded not guilty.

AT&T Wireless spokesman Mark Siegel said the company cooperates with law enforcement officials for investigations but refused to discuss its policies on storing text messages. The company's Web site said messages not immediately delivered are held for 72 hours for more delivery attempts -- then deleted. How messages in the Bryant case would be available four months later isn't known; most likely they were retrieved from an archival storage system.

"It's just a common practice," Kagan said. "I don't know an instance where they delete them."

While some European countries require telecoms to store text-messaging content and other communications for law enforcement purposes no such requirement exists in the US, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. That changes when law enforcement officials obtain a court order.

This story has been viewed 4008 times.

Comments will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned.

TOP top