In America, it is not illegal to write about your past crimes, and the following is a guide to doing it online. I am an attorney who has practiced criminal defense law, however, this article merely provides general legal information—not legal advice.
Any defense attorney will tell you that it is almost never prudent to make statements about your past crimes. This is particularly true online as it creates evidence, often permanent, that can be used in your prosecution. Unless you are masking your identity with software like Tor, every web site that you visit can record your computer’s Internet Protocol (IP) address. Without masking, this IP address is also delivered with every e-mail you send.
Nevertheless, even if the only precaution you take is to use a pseudonym it is highly unlikely you will be tracked down by law enforcement if you do it in a global forum and only talk about low-level crimes like sex work or drug use. It is not because the authorities cannot find you, but because it is not worth their time. Even the simple act of filing a warrant to discover an IP address is usually not worthwhile for multiple reasons:
- They do not know if you are lying.
- They would have to prove that it was you that used your computer and your pseudonym.
- They would have to have some evidence in addition to the internet admission.
- They often do not know if the crime occurred in their jurisdiction.
- They often do not know if the crime occurred outside of the statute of limitations.
There are three things you can do to increase the odds you will not be pursued. The most obvious is to hide your identity and any clues to your identity. Talking about a crime on a social network like Facebook, even with an alias, is risky as profiles provide other identifying information.
In forums that discuss drug use the acronym SWIM is often used instead of “I.” SWIM stands for “someone who isn’t me.” Using SWIM is better than using a first-person narrative but more creative obfuscation would be better. For example, saying a friend did the described activity.
Second, do not reveal the location of the crime. Law enforcement is bound by its jurisdiction. Police are significantly less likely to pursue a low-level crime if they are unsure if it occurred in their jurisdiction. For example, Philadelphia police are not going to waste time investigating something that probably occurred in another municipality or another state. For this reason, writing about crimes in a local forum, like the Littlestown Crocheting Message Board, is not wise.
Federal authorities have broader jurisdiction but rarely pursue low-level crimes, and they would almost never waste resources investigating a low-level crime that may have occurred abroad.
Third, do not disclose when the crime happened. Most crimes have a time limit on how long they are allowed to be prosecuted. These limits are called statutes of limitations. Law enforcement is unlikely to investigate low-level crimes that may no longer be open to prosecution.
Writing about your crimes online is rarely advisable, however, writing about low-level crimes in global forums has scant chance of spurring investigation if you use these precautions.
- Criminal statute of limitations laws by state: LINK
- Facebook’s procedures for law enforcement seeking a user’s data: LINK
- Rocco Parscandola, “NYPD Forms New Social Media Unit to Mine Facebook and Twitter for Mayhem,” NYDailyNews.com, 10 Aug. 2011. LINK
- Tor’s website: LINK
The following tweets by Mary Wanna? are examples of oversharing online. Follow Marry Wanna? on Twitter at @the_high_life.