SC: Photos, messages from FB Messenger admissible as evidence

The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that photos and messages obtained by private individuals from a Facebook messenger account are admissible as evidence in court.

Photo from Freepik.com

In a 31-page decision penned by Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez, the SC sustained the conviction of the petitioner, Christian C. Cadajas, for violation of RA 9775, or the Anti-Child Pornography Act, rejecting his claim that the chat thread presented as evidence against him should be excluded since the same was obtained in violation of his right to privacy.

In 2016, petitioner, then 24 years old, started a romantic relationship with the unnamed a 14-year old girl. The minor, using the cellphone of her mother, would converse with petitioner on Facebook Messenger.

In one of their conversations, petitioner coaxed the victim to send photos of her private parts, which she did. The mother later discovered this conversation when the girl forgot to log out her Facebook account on her mother’s phone, prompting the victim to delete the messages on her account. Her mother, however, forced her to open petitioner’s Facebook messenger account to get a copy of their conversation.

The SC held that because the Bill of Rights under the Constitution, which includes the right to privacy, was intended to protect citizens from government intrusions, the right to privacy and its consequent effects on the rules on admissibility of evidence cannot be invoked against private individuals.

In the case of petitioner, the Facebook Messenger chat thread was not obtained through the efforts of police officers or any State agent, but by the minor child, a private individual who had access to the photos and conversations in the chat thread.

Neither can the minor be said to have violated the petitioner’s privacy, said the court, since by giving the girl the password to his Facebook Messenger account, the petitioner lost a reasonable expectation of privacy over the contents of his account.

Thus, the SC said that even if the girl was only forced by her mother to obtain the photos and messages, there is still no violation of the petitioner’s privacy, since by allowing another person access to his account, the petitioner made its contents available not only to the girl, but to other persons she might show the account to, whether she be forced or not to do so.

The high court also held that the restrictions under the Data Privacy Act (DPA) are not applicable to petitioner since the DPA allows the processing of personal information where it relates to the determination of criminal liability of a data subject.

The SC also ruled that the crime of child pornography, while defined and penalized under a special law, should be classified as mala in se, or acts which are inherently immoral and thus require proof of criminal intent by the accused, as opposed to mala prohibita, or those acts which are prohibited only because the law says so, making the intent of the accused irrelevant.

The court held that consistent with legislative deliberations on the Anti-Child Pornography Act, it is clear that the illegal acts under the law are not mere prohibitions but serious, depraved acts. Thus, in cases of child pornography, the criminal intent of the accused must be proved.

In the case of petitioner, it was established that he had intent to induce the girl, a minor, to exhibit her private parts, since it was petitioner’s prodding that led her to take and share the intimate photos.

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