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Police and prosecutors are finding themselves dealing with a new--and ghastly--twist on a very old problem.  There's been a dramatic spike in the use of social media to intimidate witnesses.

While intimidating witnesses isn’t new, social media is the latest vehicle by which to do so.

“Witness intimidation has long been a part of the challenge of using criminal informants in our justice system,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Social media and the online exchange of information have changed many of the ways we think about law enforcement and crime control, and this is one of the important ways.”

According to Natapoff, the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social media has made it harder to control the flow of information, thus making it easier for bottom-feeders to bully witnesses.  There's also a Website called "whoisarat.com" where people can post pictures of informants; it's outed 5,000 people who are cooperating in various cases.  That site needs to be shut down yesterday.

The problem really came into sharp focus last week, when it was discovered that someone was using an account on Instagram called "rats215" to out witnesses to violent crimes in Philadelphia.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "rats215" had outed more than 30 witnesses since it first popped up in February, and had over 7,900 followers before being shut down last Thursday.  Officials are still trying to identify the bottom-feeder behind that account.

On Tuesday, Philly police arrested Nasheen Anderson, a 17-year-old from the Germantown neighborhood, after finding out he'd tweeted information about a 2012 attempted shooting and sent it to "rats215."  The victim had been targeted for his testimony in a murder case.  Anderson faces a minimum of 10 years in prison if convicted.  Philadelphia DA Seth Williams has had to deal with a "near-epidemic" level of witness intimidation, and has a warning for anyone who does this--"I don't care how old you are, if you intimidate a witness in this city I'm going to come after you."

But this has been a big problem for some time before then.  In July, two Louisiana men were indicted for intimidating a witness in a Social Security fraud trial via Instagram; they could face as much as 30 years if convicted.  And last month, a drug defendant in Buffalo was convicted of having his then-fiancee post secret grand jury testimony on Facebook.

Several courthouses have gone as far as to ban cellphones, since pictures and videos taken on them can be used to threaten witnesses.  For instance, Cook County (Chicago) courts have banned the use of cellphones except for eporters, judges, law enforcement officers, jurors, domestic violence advocates and counselors and those seeking protection orders.  The Justice Department is also asking the courts to make it harder for the public to obtain court documents.  Hope these bottom-feeders are proud of themselves--it could make it a lot harder for honest citizens to follow cases.

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