Community groups are created to bring residents together and help spread news about relevant matters or incidents. But did you know that you could be in serious trouble if you share a picture of any perceived criminal on such a page?
Residents who “cry criminal” and share a picture of an individual they believe is a criminal on social media could face as much as one year in prison as well as a hefty fine or a civil lawsuit.
Local group Hout Bay Neighbourhood Watch took to Facebook to remind their members of exactly this after attending a talk by legal specialist in all police matters, Advocate Melville Cloete from the provincial police.
It is apparent that many members of a group are eager to snuff out crime and do their best to share information they believe could help the community, whether its a simple neighbourhood notification or a picture of a wanted criminal.
Addressing members of neighbourhood watch-groups and other local groups at his talk at Gene Louw Traffic College in Brackenfell, Cloete cautioned residents about the dangers of sharing such content.
“You are not allowed to publish a picture identifying an alleged suspect in a crime on WhatsApp or on Facebook before this person had appeared before a court of law. The South African Police Service Act strictly forbids this,” Cloete stressed.
It goes without saying that the same applies when sharing pictures of witnesses in criminal cases, these images could lead to vigilantism or even put people’s lives in danger.
“Members of neighbourhood watches often take pictures of suspects at crime scenes, which you can do, but the moment you send the picture to someone else or post it to a social media platform, it is considered published,” he added.
The only exception is when an officer in charge of the investigation gives permission for a certain picture to be published.
“The publication of a photo identifying the alleged perpetrator could thus render the trial unfair and it might result in the suspect being acquitted. The same applies if the perpetrator is identified in public before an ID parade has taken place,” said Cloete.
It is also possible that posting such photos could damage an investigation or defeat the ends of justice unintentionally.
“It can also lead to vigilante action in cases where the person arrested is innocent, but as a result of the published photo, which depicts him as a criminal, the community takes the law into its own hands. Everyone has the right to a good name and reputation and the person who taints this with defamatory statements, by posting such a photo, can be held liable for damages in civil court,” said Cloete, adding that numerous complainants have won such cases in recent years.
In some cases these actions have even led to people being unlawfully arrested and detained causing an investigation into the police officers who relied on the information from the community.
“It can happen so easily. We have to be very careful what we publish on social media platforms such as WhatsApp. If you see a person in your neighbourhood and you have grounds to believe him to be a criminal, don’t just take a photo, naming him a suspect, and post it. Rather state the facts around the circumstances and post that,” advised Cloete.
Residents are also reminded that revealing a number plate or encroaching on the privacy of individuals while taking pictures is against the law.
According to Cloete, vigilante action is common in many areas of Cape Town. The simple action of posting a picture online could hurt someone innocent or land the person posting in jail.