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Text messages must be separately authenticated

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In a matter of first impression, the Indiana Court of Appeals determined text messages are subject to separate authentication before being admitted into evidence, much like the authentication process that data saved in a computer must undergo before being admitted.

In Darby L. Hape v. State of Indiana, No. 63A01-0804-CR-175, Darby Hape was convicted of felony possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, felony resisting law enforcement, and was found to be a habitual offender. After his convictions, he discovered that during deliberations, the jury was able to turn on one of his cell phones, which had been admitted into evidence, and see text messages, including one from "Brett." The text messages weren't introduced as evidence during the trial. Hape claimed that exposure required a correction of error and permission to poll the jury regarding the prejudicial impact of the text message on its deliberations. The trial court denied his motion.

The appellate court upheld the denial of Hape's motion to poll the jury because the text messages didn't constitute extraneous prejudicial information and he didn't meet his burden under Indiana Evidence Rule 606(b) in attempting to impeach the jury verdict with testimony about the messages, wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik.

The text messages are intrinsic to the cell phone and the jury discovered the text messages by turning on the phone that was admitted into evidence. Turning on the phone didn't constitute an extrajudicial experiment that impermissibly exposed the jury to extraneous information, wrote Judge Vaidik.

The appellate court determined the Confrontation Clause doesn't bar the text messages from "Brett" on the phone because they are not testimonial, wrote the judge. There aren't any Indiana cases involving authentication of text messages generated and stored in cell phones, but the Court of Appeals ruled the text messages should be subject to the same authentication requirement of data saved in a computer before it can be admitted into evidence.

"Even though we have determined that a text message stored in a cellular telephone is intrinsic to the telephone, a proponent may offer the substance of the text message for an evidentiary purpose unique from the purpose served by the telephone itself. Rather, in such cases, the text message must be separately authenticated pursuant to Indiana Evidence Rule 901(a)," Judge Vaidik wrote.

Even though the jury saw the text messages without proper authentication, it didn't rise to the level of fundamental error because the jury's exposure was harmless. The evidence against Hape is strong and compelling without the text messages, she wrote.

The Court of Appeals affirmed Hape's convictions but reversed his adjudication as a habitual offender for lack of sufficient evidence and his corresponding 30-year sentence enhancement. The matter is remanded to the trial court to issue a new sentencing order not inconsistent with the opinion.

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