When Courts and Emojis Collide

Since 1789, the court system of the United States has been counted on to hear both sides of an argument and then resolve things for its citizens. But are our courts prepared to interpret the complexity and true intent behind…emojis?

For example, Bay Area prosecutors were trying to prove that a man arrested during a prostitution sting was guilty of pimping charges, and among the evidence was a series of Instagram DMs he’d allegedly sent to a woman. One read: “Teamwork make the dream work” with high heels and money bag emoji placed at the end. Prosecutors said the message implied a working relationship between the two of them. The defendant said it could mean he was trying to strike up a romantic relationship. Who was right?

Emoji are showing up as evidence in court more frequently with each passing year. Between 2004 and 2019, there was an exponential rise in emoji and emoticon references in US court opinions, with over 30 percent of all cases appearing in 2018, according to Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has been tracking all of the references to “emoji” and “emoticon” that show up in US court opinions.

So far, the emoji and emoticons have rarely been important enough to sway the direction of a case, but as they become more common, the ambiguity in how emoji are displayed and what we interpret emoji to mean could become a larger issue for courts to contend with.

Emoticons started appearing in court in 2004, and they have since been found most commonly in sexual predator cases. But that’s just counting the cases that were able to be tracked with the words “emoji” and “emoticon.” Electronic databases of court opinions aren’t set up to handle the actual emoji, and they aren’t displayed in the case records by database services like Westlaw or Lexis, which is where Goldman finds his references.

More recently, emoji have overtaken emoticons, and they’ve shown up in all types of cases, from murder to robbery. “We’re going to see emojis show up more frequently when the case involves people talking to each other,” Goldman says. In murder cases, emoji could be found in threats that took place between the defendant and the victim, and they serve as evidence that suggests the defendant’s state of mind or whether they had a propensity to commit the crime. “That can happen in criminal law, but it can happen in contract law as well. There’s a bunch of chatter that takes place before a contract is actually formed,” he says.

“Judges need to be aware of the importance of the emojis to the overall communication when we run into these odd evidentiary issues,” Goldman says. “We need to make sure that the emoji get proper credit.”

Maybe your business contract will be sealed with an emoji kiss or an enthusiastic thumbs up?  Hey, when the idiocy of mankind is involved, anything is possible.

And when two or more humans are involved in just about anything, there will be legal disputes. When those things (involving emojis or not) affect YOUR business, call on the smiley face, white hat wearing good guy litigator, Dean Sperling who will work to resolve YOUR matter with YOUR best interests in mind! 

More on the case:

Emoji are showing up in court cases exponentially, and courts aren’t prepared