New York Court of Appeals: Screenshot or It Didn’t Happen

When text messages are deleted and can’t be retrieved from someone’s phone, what’s the best way to prove in court what the messages said? According to the New York Court of Appeals today in People v Rodriguez, screenshots of the text messages can be introduced into evidence when they are properly authenticated by someone with personal knowledge of their contents (usually, the sender or recipient of the texts).

In Rodriguez, a 43-year-old high school volleyball coach sent numerous sexually explicit texts to a 15-year-old girl who played volleyball on his team. The victim’s boyfriend found the texts on her phone, took screenshots of them, and sent the screenshots to himself and the victim’s mother. The victim then deleted the texts and reset her phone. When the boyfriend was arrested for assaulting the victim after finding the texts, he showed the police the screenshots of the texts. And so did the victim’s mother.

At the coach’s trial for attempted use of a child in a sexual performance, disseminating indecent material to minors in the first degree, and endangering the welfare of a child, the prosecution sought to admit the screenshots of the text messages into evidence. The defense objected based on the best evidence rule, which “requires the production of an original writing where its contents are in dispute and sought to be proven” (People v Haggerty, 23 NY3d 871, 876 [2014]), and failure to properly authenticate the evidence.

The trial court denied the defense’s objection, ruling that if a proper foundation could be laid, the screenshots could be admitted as evidence. The victim then testified that the coach had texted her almost 250 times between October and November 2014, many of which were sexually explicit, which was corroborated by her cell phone provider’s records. In particular, the victim testified that the screenshots were fair and accurate representations of the texts she received on her phone from the coach on November 7th. The trial judge then admitted the screenshots over the defense’s objection.

Upon the coach’s conviction, he appealed, and the Appellate Division, with two Justices dissenting, reversed, and remanded for a new trial based upon the admission of the screenshots into evidence. The People then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reinstated the conviction and remanded to the Appellate Division for consideration of two additional issues that the coach had raised, but were not initially decided.

On the admission of the screenshots into evidence, Judge Cannataro, writing for the unanimous Court, held that the trial court had not abused its discretion by allowing the screenshots in. Relying on its recent decision in People v Price (29 NY3d 472, 477 [2017]), which addressed the admission of digital photographs, the Court reiterated that the photographer, which would be the boyfriend in this case, is not the only one who can attest to the authenticity of the photographs. Rather, any person with requisite knowledge of the facts, or an expert, may testify that the photos or screenshots here are authentic and fair and accurate representations of their content. Because the victim participated in the text message exchange, she was capable of, and did, testify that the screenshots were authentic representations of the texts that the coach had sent. That was enough for them to be admitted into evidence at trial, the Court held.

This is a very helpful decision for trial lawyers across the state, who can understand what will be required to get screenshots into evidence, Because the Court of Appeals has now adopted oft-cited rule: screenshot or it didn’t happen.

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