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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Pennsylvania Probation Department Monitors Facebook Activity


The Clinton County Department of Probation and Parole in Central Pennsylvania has implemented a standard probation condition requiring all defendants under supervision to “friend” the department’s Facebook page and allow full access to all the defendant’s content. Police, probation officers and parole agents have been using social media to detect evidence of crime and technical violations of probation and parole since the technology first emerged. What is unique about the Clinton County approach is that it is open and honest. Law enforcement normally checks the social media content of suspects, defendants and probationers secretly, but Clinton County Probation is basically saying, “we are going to be watching you, so don’t post anything incriminating”

So what exactly would probation officers be looking for? Only the daftest criminals are going to boast of crimes like burglary, robbery or theft online, but almost everyone of a certain age posts pics of themselves in social situations, and social situations often involve alcohol. For today’s young people, if something is not posted on social media, it is like it never happened. Certain young people, especially college students, love to post pics of themselves chugging booze, with the implicit message being “look how cool and badass I am! I am drinking!” Needless to say, many people drink while on probation and parole, even though no one under supervision is allowed to consume alcohol, even if the underlying offense is not alcohol-related and even if the defendant is over 21. Those shots downed on Saturday night will be long gone from a probationer’s body when the Monday morning probation appointment rolls around, but the party pics will live on in cyberspace for all to see.

Many people are also quite nonchalant when it comes to posting about drug use, especially marijuana. This is especially true of young people, who have come of age at a time when there is actually far more social stigma against smoking cigarettes in public than smoking cannabis in private. Thus, Twitter and Facebook are awash in ganja pics and status updates about getting baked. No probation officer enjoys handling vials of urine, so if a probationer announces to the world on Twitter that he just toked, he will likely fess up when confronted with the post at his next probation appointment, eliminating the need for a drug test.
Of course, not everyone is on Facebook. I am not sure if someone placed on probation in Clinton County must now create a Facebook page just to comply with this new condition of probation. Likewise, some people will invariably friend the Probation Department with their real name, while using a different name for their primary account. It has yet to be seen whether this form of deception will constitute a technical violation if detected. I will also be curious to see how a judge would react. People who violate probation are normally re-sentenced to a period of incarceration. Will we soon see judges locking people up for failure to give Probation access to their Facebook accounts?

I think that eventually almost all probation departments will adopt variations of the Clinton County policy. Clinton County just happens to be one of the first departments to think of it. Before long, a big part of a probation officer’s day could consist of sifting through pictures of cute cats, duck-faced, beautiful women and delicious cuisine in the pursuit of evidence of probation violations.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University.

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