A federal judge correctly admitted as evidence six memes that a defendant posted online before he started enticing a fake, law enforcement-run account into prostitution, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled on Monday.
Melvin Roshard Alfred was a user of the social media platform Tagged, going by the username “King Maybach.” Alfred sent messages to several dozen users, among them an account called “G-Baby,” which was a front for law enforcement to target sex traffickers. G-Baby appeared to users as a 19-year-old Colorado woman.
The officer corresponding with Alfred in September 2018 used the pseudonym “Nikki,” telling Alfred she wanted to leave Denver. Alfred encouraged Nikki prostitute herself to come up with the money and come to Houston, where Alfred lived. After Nikki showed hesitation, Alfred continued to urge her to engage in sex for money.
Someone posing as Nikki called Alfred to tell him she was coming to Houston, and Alfred agreed to meet her at the bus station. Law enforcement arrested him there.
At issue in the appeal were eight memes — which the 10th Circuit defined as “pictures with text over them or pictures of text” — that Alfred posted on Tagged three years before he began engaging with the fake profile. One of them contained an image of movie character Ron Burgundy, and another depicted a hand holding coins. Both were captioned with a “Pimp Thoughts” web address.
“Did King Maybach repost memes from an Instagram account called Pimp Thoughts on his Tagged profile? Yes,” said Alfred’s attorney, Laura Suelau, at trial. “When he did that five years ago, did he think it was funny? Maybe. Does he think it's funny today? Probably not.”
“The memes contained laudatory references to pimping and pimping culture and also contained graphic depictions suggesting dire consequences of engaging in prostitution without a pimp,” described Judge Carolyn B. McHugh in the appellate court’s opinion.
At trial, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer admitted six of the memes as evidence, despite the defense’s argument that they were unrelated to the crime and did not reflect Alfred's thinking at the time he interacted with Nikki. Prosecutors countered the online media were central to Alfred’s “brand.”
Brimmer decided that since anyone whom Alfred contacted on Tagged could see the memes, “I find that they were readily available, the nature of the website readily available. And as a result, I find that in fact they are intrinsic because they are the types of things that can be easily seen.”
He did, however, omit two memes depicting violence against women because “there is a very, very high likelihood that the jury, especially those two images in combination, would believe that Mr. Alfred’s message is that you get in line or you get beaten up.”
The jury convicted Alfred of coercion and enticement and also of facilitating prostitution, with a 21-month sentence.ed his argument that Brimmer misunderstood the nature of social media by seeing the memes as permanent fixtures, rather than “fleeting thoughts.” Suelau had told the jury that "if the government's theory is that these pictures, these memes and photos of money, are evidence of him trying to lure people in 2018, part of this business enterprise and marketing strategy four years later, well, that's a marketing strategy with a long game."
That argument "ignores the integral nature of social media to Mr. Alfred’s attempts to solicit prostitution,” countered McHugh. “Mr. Alfred’s easily accessible memes and pictures were an integral part of the solicitation attempt and advancement of his business.”
She added that “[w]hile the memes provided other evidence of Mr. Alfred’s long-held interest in pimping, any prejudice arose from the fact that they tended to show Mr. Alfred was, aspired to be, or held himself out as, a pimp.”
Forbes reported in 2018 that it is legal to use social media communications as evidence. Last year, a judge in Maryland admitted "stupid," but racist, memes into a murder trial after prosecutors alleged that the media were crucial to proving the defendant intended to stab a Black soldier.
The case is United States v. Alfred.