MOORHEAD — On Oct. 27, Jaquan Lee Gardner allegedly sent a message to his cousin Keshawn Devontia Dildy on Snapchat showing bags of marijuana, labeled with sizes and prices.
Just days before, Dildy was allegedly featured in videos and images on Gardner’s account that showed illegal drug activity.
That’s according to a search warrant for the apartment of the two Moorhead men. The warrant shows color photos of the snaps — messages posted on Snapchat — that led to the search of the apartment. There, investigators found guns, ammunition and marijuana, police said.
Dildy, 25, and Gardner, 27, were charged Oct. 31 in Clay County District Court with controlled substance possession and face possible prison time.
It’s not uncommon for Snapchat, a popular social media platform used to send images and videos to users, to be cited in search warrants or charging documents. The phone app that has roughly 210 million daily users is widely known for making messages “Snapchatters” send to one another inaccessible after a certain period of time.
But there is a caveat: “Some information may be retrieved by law enforcement through proper legal process,” according to Snapchat's website.
“The electronic footprint is like a thumbprint,” said Drew Wrigley, the U.S. attorney in North Dakota. “It’s there, and law enforcement will have the means to find it.”
Criminals have used Snapchat and other social media platforms for several years, Wrigley said, but it’s becoming more prevalent.
On a national level, Snapchat has received an increasing number of requests from authorities to look at user accounts. In 2018, the social media app received 14,063 requests, a 766% increase from the 1,623 submitted in 2015, according to a Forum analysis of Snapchat’s transparency reports.
The app only had numbers from the first half of 2019, but that year is already on pace to exceed 2018. In 2019, U.S. authorities made 10,061 requests for Snapchat account information from Jan. 1 to June 30, the November transparency report said.
“It’s just another means of committing some of the oldest crimes on the book,” Wrigley said. “It’s like a lot of technology. It doesn’t create the crime. It’s just another venue.”
'A new one every day'
Snaps have been used in a variety of crimes, Moorhead Police Detective Nicholas Schultz said. In some cases, investigators have used snaps to identify sexual assault suspects. One suspect in Moorhead was accused of using Snapchat to buy a PlayStation 4 from someone but took the game console from the seller at gunpoint, according to court documents.
In November, Yahtavion Carlieke Powell, 19, and Jahshionne Jahtae Forrest, 24, were indicted in Fargo on federal charges related to a robbery allegedly set up on Snapchat, according to court documents. Prosecutors allege the two men lured a marijuana dealer and used a gun to rob him of money and drugs in July in Fargo.
“Snapchat’s obviously the big one,” Schultz said. “Most people know about it, but there are so many apps out there. There is a new one every day. It’s a matter of figuring out what people are using and getting to it.”
Snapchat sometimes contacts local law enforcement about potential criminal activity it detects, and other times officers reach out to the app’s staff to obtain evidence.
It’s not difficult for investigators to get information from Snapchat, but establishing enough evidence to obtain a search warrant can be time-consuming, Schultz said. Each request is dealt with on a first-come first-serve basis, he said.
“You get it in there, and then it is a waiting game,” he said. “Sometimes you get stuff back quickly. Sometimes, it can take a month or two.”
Social media platforms like Snapchat each have dedicated teams to help law enforcement track down criminal activity, Schultz said, adding that they get thousands of requests from across the world.
'Keeping a pace'
Search warrants have made up at least half of the legal requests Snapchat receives from authorities seeking to view user accounts, according to reports the app has generated biannually since 2015, with the app producing evidence for warrants up to 92% of the time.
A Snapchat representative did not respond to a request for an interview, but instead sent background information on how Snapchat does not allow illegal content to be promoted or distributed on its app. Once notified a person has violated Snapchat’s rules, staff investigate the claim and remove the content if the allegations are sustained. Some accounts may be terminated.
The Forum reached out to attorneys for several defendants in cases involving searches of Snapchat, including Dildy, Gardner, Powell and Forrest. They either didn’t return messages or declined to comment.
Fargo police detectives also declined to comment for this story, saying they can’t speak about how they use social media platforms for investigatory purposes.
Technology, and how criminals use it, is advancing, but so are investigators and prosecutors, Wrigley said. Law enforcement agencies are deepening relationships with social media companies in an effort to increase cooperation when it comes to fighting crime, he said.
“It is simply an evolving technology that is used by the bad guys,” Wrigley said. “I can assure you that the good guys are out there keeping a pace with that and trying to make sure that we don’t lose the ability to pick up where these crimes are being committed.”