This section on documenting/saving evidence discusses keeping evidence in cases of abuse involving technology. When evidence is located on technology devices, you may have to take precautions to make sure your evidence isn't deleted.
What does it mean to document my evidence?
Any evidence can be documented so that you can access it later. For purposes of this page, to document your evidence means that you are taking steps to:
- preserve (keep) evidence of abuse; or
- accurately record (in a log, for example) incidents of abuse as they happen.
Part of documenting evidence means that you are not changing the evidence at all – so, for example, if the abuser sends a threatening email that is unsigned, you cannot add his/her name to the email just because you know that s/he wrote it. Documenting your evidence can be helpful if you later need to produce it for a court hearing or other legal matter. Documenting your evidence could include things like keeping a log of abusive incidents, printing out abusive emails, taking screenshots of abusive text messages or social media posts, or printing any related photographs or cell phone records.
Why is documenting evidence important in cases involving technology abuse?
If an abuser is using technology to abuse you, often the evidence of that abuse is located on the Internet or on a device like a cell phone, tablet, computer or video camera. Documenting this evidence can be very helpful if at some point you want to try to have the legal system hold the abuser accountable. It is important to document the evidence as soon as possible because an abuser may be able to access and delete the proof of the abuse.
It may be your first instinct to delete threatening messages from an abuser or to “block” the abuser if s/he is harassing you on social media. This is a completely understandable response. However, before you do this, it’s important to understand and think through how this will impact your ability to document evidence. If you delete the messages, there may no longer be evidence that you can access, and it may be difficult or impossible to access it from the abuser’s accounts or devices. There are ways you can minimize having to see the abusive material while still being able to collect and document evidence of the abuser’s crimes and behaviors. For instance, you can silence message notifications from that particular person or set up a folder in your email account and create a rule for messages from that sender to go straight to the separate folder. Filtering the abuser’s communications will allow you to have access to the information when you want to without constantly having to see it.
Documenting this evidence is so important because in court hearings for an order of protection, for example, the judge is making decisions about what to include in an order or whether to grant an order. At these court hearings, the judge will often hear evidence and testimony from both sides. Having your evidence documented in a form that you can bring to court allows you to present it to the judge to support your testimony. You may also need to show the evidence to law enforcement in certain situations or to your lawyer so that s/he can prepare for court.
How should I document the abuse?
The best way to document evidence of abuse will depend on the exact circumstances of your case and the way that the abuser is using technology to commit the abuse. You may wish to speak with a lawyer or domestic violence advocate in your state about what records you should keep. If you aren’t sure what could be useful, it is generally better to keep more evidence, rather than less.
Some ways you may consider documenting your evidence is to keep a log (or a record) of the details of each incident as the incidents occur. (You can also download a sample Technology Abuse Log to help with this.) The log could include:
- a list of the date and time of each incident;
- what the abuser did or said;
- what actions, if any, you took; and
- what witnesses or evidence you have that is related to the incident, etc.
It is important to save any voicemails, call logs, emails, or text messages that are sent, and to take screenshots or photographs of the phone or computer screen and store them in a safe location separate from the device on which you originally accessed them. When taking screenshots or photographs, be sure to include as much information as possible. For instance, you will want to show the phone number of the person who is sending harassing messages, not just the contact name you assigned to that person in your phone.
You should print out emails with the full header information included so that details such as the date and time of the email and the IP address it was sent from can be easily identified. It is important to only document this from the original email. If the email has been forwarded, you will no longer have the information related to the original sender.
Also, you can take screenshots of any posts made on social media to preserve them in case the abuser who posted them later deletes them. When you do this, be sure to include the full URL (web address) that is in the bar at the top of the window and to also take screenshots of the abuser’s profile page. Many social media sites and apps allow you to download the data on your account. Once you download your account information, you may be able to collect your evidence that way. If you have filed criminal charges, law enforcement may be able to send a letter or subpoena to the social media company or website asking them to keep the account information.
If you find evidence that you are being stalked or monitored, like a hidden camera, microphone, or GPS tracker, you may want to think through the impact of removing or interfering with the equipment. Removing it could impact both your safety (if the abuser knows that you found it) and your ability to document it. Perhaps you may want to consider asking the police to document the evidence before removing it. Before taking any action, you may want to work with a domestic violence advocate to think about how removing the equipment may impact your safety and to safety plan. The abuser may escalate his/her violence if s/he realizes you have discovered it.