United States v. Zhyltsou, No. 13-803-cr (2d Cir. Oct. 3, 2014).
The government charged Aliaksandr Zhyltsou with forging a birth certificate for Vladyslav Timku. The forged birth certificate was sent to Timku from firstname.lastname@example.org (remember that gmail address: it’ll come up later). Problem was, the government didn’t have any evidence that this was the email address for Zhyltsou, the defendant—any evidence other than Timku’s say-so, that is. And Timku was an informant and convicted criminal.
But the government located a profile on VK, a Russian social networking site, that it thought was linked to Zhyltsou. The profile was of somebody named “Alexander Zhiltsov,” which apparently is an alternate spelling of Zhyltsou’s name. And, nicely for the government, the profilee’s Skype handle was “Azmazdeuz,” which looks an awful lot like the gmail address that sent the forged birth certificate. Other than the name on the profile, though, there wasn’t any evidence that the profile belonged to Zhyltsou—or even that he ever had a VK profile. Still, the district court let the government argue that this was indeed Zhyltsou’s profile. And the jury came back with a conviction.
On appeal, the Second Circuit holds that the government didn’t present enough information from outside the VK profile to authenticate it—that is, to connect it to Zhyltsou. So the district court shouldn’t have let the government argue that it was Zhyltsou’s profile. Since the profile was vital to the government’s case, the district court’s error wasn’t harmless, and the conviction is reversed.