Social Media Searches Upheld in Child Sex Trafficking Prosecution

by | August 19, 2021

United States v. Vines, 2021 WL 3578553 (7th Cir. 2021)

GMC was a 15-year-old runaway from a foster home. When she was arrested for shoplifting, she lied to police about her name and age to avoid being returned to the foster system. She contacted a friend to pick her up from jail. The “friend” came to pick her up, accompanied by Elijah Vines. Vines operated a cellphone sales scam and prostituted young girls. Vines took GMC to his residence and then to a hotel, where he began prostituting GMC.

Vines, who knew GMC was a juvenile, posted ads of GMC on the website Backpage. He also arranged for GMC to meet customers to engage in sex acts; he took the money paid for the sex acts.

After several months of being trafficked by Vines, GMC was taken into custody as a runaway by police. Officers took her to an emergency room at a children’s hospital. She told medical staff she had run away from home and had been forced to engage in sex in exchange for drugs and money. Doctors examining her reported GMC had injuries “too numerous to count.”

GMC told officers she called her trafficker “Deacon” or “Deacon Dollar,” but she knew that was not his real name. She told the officers she had seen a Facebook page belonging to “Deacon” under the name “Elijah Kilt Vines” while scrolling through his phone. The officers opened the Facebook page associated with “Elijah Kilt Vines” and asked, “Is this him? I can’t imagine there’s another one with the same name like that.” GMC then identified the photo of Vines on his Facebook page as her trafficker.

The Supreme Court has instructed that due process concerns arise only where an identification procedure is both suggestive and unnecessary.

Vines claimed the identification procedure was unduly suggestive and asked the court to suppress GMC’s identification. The Supreme Court has instructed that due process concerns arise only where an identification procedure is both suggestive and unnecessary (Sexton v. Beaudreaux, 138 S. Ct. 2555, (2018)). In this case, the officers went looking for Vines’ Facebook page only after GMC told them she’d seen it on his iPhone. The court held there was “no basis to hold that the showing of the Facebook account to GMC was suggestive.”

GMC also told officers Vines used his cell phone to record her performing sex acts on him, and to photograph her and share those photos through sex-trafficking social media sites to lure customers. When Vines was arrested, he gave his iPhone to his girlfriend, who kept the phone at her home. The girlfriend did not know the passcode for the phone. Sometime after Vines’ arrest, officers went to the girlfriend’s home and asked her if she still had Vines’ phone and if she would provide it to them. They told her they would seek a search warrant if she didn’t hand over the phone. She gave the phone to them. Officers later secured a search warrant for the contents of the phone.

Vines claimed the seizure of the phone was unlawful because his girlfriend did not have the passcode to the phone and because her consent to give up the phone was invalid. The court noted the first claim was irrelevant: “Vines possessed two protectible interests here: the privacy interest in the contents of the phone, which was not at issue because a search warrant was obtained before opening and searching the phone, and a right to possess the phone…” The girlfriend had apparent authority to surrender the phone. The officers reasonably relied on her consent to hand it over. Thus, both of Vines’ claims fail. Vines will have 40 years in federal prison to think about his chosen profession and his decision to hand over his phone to his (former?) girlfriend.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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