Was that witness intimidation?
Yes, said the California Court of Appeals in 2019. Baby Ticc was the defendant and TW was the witness. The message seemed to say that TW was a rat for testifying against Baby Ticc and should be shot. The Facebook poster was convicted of witness intimidation and the appeals court upheld that conviction.
“The four gunshot emojis and three gun emojis were evidence (the defendant) was seeking to encourage other viewers of his Facebook page to shoot (the witness),” the appeals court ruled.
Reading emojis is tricky enough in casual texts between friends, but it’s much more complicated in American courthouses. So said six panelists, including four judges and former judges, at an Aug. 18 American Bar Association webinar.
The program, titled “The Emoji’s Gambit: Legal Issues in Admitting Emojis as Symbols of Evidence,” was hosted by the ABA Judicial Division and co-sponsored by the ABA Young Lawyers Division and Thomson Reuters.
Emojis are becoming more and more common in court cases, said Eric Goldman, a law professor from Santa Clara University in California. In 2019, emojis and emoticons appeared in 101 court opinions – nearly double the number of just one year earlier, Goldman said.
But understanding precisely what particular emojis mean can be tricky. Even commonly understood emojis – smiley faces, for example – can appear very different on different services, like Apple, Android and Twitter, Goldman said. As a result, the sender and receiver sometimes do not see the same emoji, which can create “some bizarre misunderstandings.”
Panelists cited several cases of ambiguous emojis and said some emojis can take on unusual meanings in niche communities. For example, among pedophiles, a growing heart emoji symbolizes a young girl, and a crown emoji can indicate that the poster is a minor with a pimp controlling them, Goldman said.
The bottom line, according to Goldman: Emojis can look different over time and on different platforms, so it’s important to always ask what both the sender and recipient actually saw.
To judges, Goldman issued this request: “Please actually show us the right emojis” in your written opinions – “not the ones that you can generate from your desktop, but ones that the actual recipient or sender saw at the time.” The difference can be huge, he said.