In re Marriage of Perry, 2012 IL App. (1st) 113054 examines the foundation requirements to admit Internet photos into evidence at trial. The respondent husband downloaded what he claimed were photos of his wife from an Internet escort site and tried to use the provocative pictures against her in a custody fight.
In finding that the husband laid a proper foundation for the flash drive photos, the Court first applied Illinois Evidence Rule 901 which sets forth a two-part test for authenticity: (1) a witness must testify that a matter is what it is claimed to be and (2) he must offer evidence that describes a process or system used to produce a result and which shows that the process or system produces an accurate result is sufficient for authentication. Ill. R. Evid. 901(b)(1), (9).
Under Evidence Rule 1001, the Court noted that a duplicate is defined as [paraphrasing] a counterpart produced by means of photography, or by other equivalent techniques that accurately reproduce the original. A duplicate is admissible to the same extent as the original unless there is a genuine issue concerning the original’s authenticity or if it would be unfair to admit the duplicate in lieu of the original. Perry, ¶ 47; Ill. R. Evid. 1001(4), 1003. In Illinois, photographs are admissible if they are identified by a witness who has knowledge of the subject matter depicted in the photographs and the witness testifies that the photos are a fair and accurate representation of the subject matter at the relevant time. Perry, ¶ 47. Expert testimony is not required to provide a foundation for a photograph if the person testifying as to the photo’s contents has personal knowledge. Perry, ¶ 48.
Applying these rules, the Court held that the husband laid a sufficient foundation that the photos in question depicted his wife. But in finding that the husband failed to lay a foundation that the photos were specifically from the “Chix Escorts” Web site, the Court noted that on-line evidence is naturally suspect since anyone can create phony social media accounts. Perry, ¶ 50. Still though, the Court noted a growing national trend to allow screenshots into evidence based on witness authentication by live testimony or affidavit.” Perry, ¶ 51.
The First District ruled that there was improper authentication evidence that the photos were from the escort site, noting that only one photo bore the “Chix Escorts” logo. In addition, the wife challenged the photo’s veracity by testifying that the flash drive photos were old photos she sent her husband and that were stored on his cell phone. The court further found that none of the photos consisted of screenshots or contained the Internet address on them. Because photos can be digitally manipulated and the wife offered testimony that the photos originated not from the Net but from her husband’s own cell phone, the Court concluded that the husband failed to lay a proper foundation that the photos originated from the “Chix Escorts” site. Perry, ¶ 53.
Even so, the Court held that the trial court’s admission of the photos as originating from the “Chix Escorts” escort site was harmless error. That’s because there was other evidence that the wife was working as an escort and the court did not base its custody decision on what escort agency the wife happened to be working for. Id., ¶ 54.
The take-away: the Perry case is a good primer on the evidence rules that dictate photograph admissibility at trial – especially in the modern-day Web context. The court liberally applied the Illinois evidence rules’ authentication requirements for downloaded Internet content.
From this case, it seems clear that “screenshot” evidence can be powerful – especially as an impeachment tool. If you can show that the challenged photograph is more likely than not a true screenshot, which bears some distinctive marks such as the domain name, the date or other evidence (such as the court itself witnessing the site from its own computer – see Perry, ¶ 51) which tends to show that the photo was in fact printed from a Web site, the Court will likely allow it in. Obviously, the proponent of the evidence will have to first establish the photo’s relevance.