Should Emojis Be Used as Evidence in Court?

Last week, The New York Times reported on the trial of accused online black-market operator Ross W. Ulbricht. Adding to the fanfare of the trial is an unusual debate over the admissibility of emojis supposedly sent by the defendant.  The debate has drawn interest from journalists, legal scholars, and the public alike and is one of a number of new technologies being debated in the courtroom.

Created and first used in Japan, emojis literally means “pictures” and can be used to communicate a variety of emotions. Tyler Schoebelen, a Stanford trained linguist who has written scholarly works on the meaning of emoticons, writes in the article:

"If it’s a ‘winkie,’ there’s flirtatiousness or a sort of a fun to it,” Mr. Schnoebelen said. “With smiles, there might be a politeness or a friendliness. If there’s a ‘frowny’ face, it’s indicating you don’t like what’s happening."

Although the emoji or emoticon’s admissibility may be helpful in conveying to a jury the meaning behind certain communications, they can also cause confusion.  A current case is pending before the US Supreme Court, where a man was convicted of making threats to murder his wife, but which he claimed were made in “jest” by use of a face with a tongue sticking out.

UPDATE: On February, 4, 2015, Ross W. Ulbricht was convicted on all seven charges in a Manhattan district court. His sentencing is scheduled for 15 May, although his defense attorney, Joshua Dratel, has promised to appeal today’s verdict.