Emoji Meet the Legal System

Friday, January 30, 2015
(graphic: Wikipedia)

Emoji, also known as emoticons, have become so prevalent in electronic communications that they are now making their way into the criminal justice system where their use is being cited as evidence in trials and arrests.


In a New York City federal courtroom, emoticons have come up in the trial of Ross Ulbricht, who is accused of being the mastermind behind the online black market known as Silk Road, where everything from drugs to guns are sold.


Near the beginning of the trial, Ulbricht’s defense objected to the prosecutor omitting the mentioning of a smiley face emoticon used in an online post read to the jury. He argued that emoji are critical to giving written words the true sense of the writer’s intent, similar to voice inflection when someone speaks.


The judge, Katherine Forrest, agreed with Ulbricht’s lawyer and told the jury to take note of the emoji.


“The jury should read them,” Forrest said, according to The New York Times. “They are meant to be read. The jury should note the punctuation and emoticons. That is part of the evidence of the document.”


Emoticons have also surfaced in other cases and arrests.


In Pennsylvania, a man was convicted of threatening his wife via Facebook. In his defense, he cited his use of an emoticon showing a tongue sticking out to indicate he was just kidding.


In Brooklyn, a teenager, Osiris Aristy, got in trouble after police learned he posted a threatening statement on Facebook, alongside emoji images of three guns and a police officer. The posting led to a police search of his home, where they found marijuana and a firearm. It led to his arrest. :-0

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

At Silk Road Trial, Lawyers Fight to Include Evidence They Call Vital: Emoji (by Benjamin Weiser, New York Times)

Brooklyn Teen Arrested for Threatening Use of Emoji (by Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason.com)


Todd 9 years ago
Emoji are not the same thing as emoticons. Emoji are those little graphical, colorized, icons. Emoticons are text based ASCII character strings, like =).

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