Pennsylvania court addresses authentication of instant messages

(This was a juvenile delinquency proceeding, thus the names of the parties involved are abbreviated with initials.)

F.P. suspected that Z.G. had stolen a DVD from him. One day in September 2003, as Z.G. was getting off the school bus, F.P. approached Z.G. and “struck him numerous times about the head and face.” F.P. was adjudicated a delinquent, and sought review.

On appeal, F.P. challenged the introduction of printed transcripts of instant messages purportedly sent back and forth between F.P. and Z.G. before the attack. In these messages, the boys discussed the alleged theft of the DVD, and F.P. threatened Z.G. with violence.

F.P. argued that in order for the instant messages to have been admitted into evidence, the prosecution should have introduced information regarding their source with an ISP, or testimony from a computer forensics expert. The “inherent unreliability” of e-mail and instant messaging communications, F.P. argued, made the authentication of the documents through circumstantial evidence improper.

The court rejected F.P.’s arguments, and held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the communications. It found that there was sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that F.P. had sent them. In the messages, F.P. had referred to himself by his first name. He accused Z.G. of stealing from him, which mirrored other testimony in the case. Furthermore, he referenced the fact that Z.G. had involved school authorities regarding the dispute between the two, which is a fact that few others would have known.

The court concluded that the applicable Pennsylvania rule of evidence (901) provided a sufficient framework for the analysis. The court held that there “was no justification for constructing unique rules for admissibility of electronic communications such as instant messages; they are to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis as any other document to determine whether or not there has been an adequate foundational showing of their relevance and authenticity.”

In the Interest of F.P., — A.2d —, 2005 WL 1399264 (Pa.Super., June 15, 2005).