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Is a Text Message Considered Written Notice?

The onset of text messaging has stirred up questions about whether they’re considered legal documents and admissible in court. Read on to find out more.

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January 24, 2024
Chloe Mulliner
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Reading time about 7 min

Nowadays, you receive texts for nearly every kind of communication. For example, your favorite brand texts you about sales, your doctor texts you appointment reminders, your landlord texts you about your water bill, and your kids’ school texts you about upcoming events.

Texting has become a common and acceptable form of communication, but how official is it? After all, we’re no longer just texting with our family and friends; we’re having business discussions over texts with those who provide us with goods and services.

So, if you were to run into issues based on a conversation that occurred over text, do you have a leg to stand on? For instance, do text messages hold up in a court of law? Can they be entered as evidence in court cases? And if so, how does the court determine what kind of text messages are admissible?

It seems the rise in text messaging has created more questions than answers in the courts, but below, we worked to unpack how the courts see text messages and what’s considered legally binding.

 

Do Messages Hold up in Court?

Can text messages be used in court? Are they legally binding? And can they be considered written notices? Follow along to find out more about what’s required when entering a text message as evidence.

Text Messages and the Law

Let’s start from the top: Can text messages be used in court? Yes, text messages can be used in court. This is because they’re considered electronic records of dialogue.

However, they must meet several requirements before being entered as court evidence. So, what makes text messages admissible in court? To be admissible in court, a text message must be legally obtained, authenticated, relevant to the case, and not be hearsay.

 

The Text Message Must be Legally Obtained

Are text messages admissible in court? Yes, text messages are admissible in court, but only if they were legally obtained. This means a person must voluntarily provide the court with the text messages. If this doesn’t occur, then an attorney must acquire a court order or subpoena for access to the cell phone, or law enforcement must obtain a warrant for access to it.

If the text messages were not legally obtained, like if the cell phone was stolen from the crime scene or the cell phone records were obtained without permission, the court won’t permit them as evidence.

 

The Text Message Must be Authenticated

Now, do text messages hold up in court? Yes, text messages can hold up in court if they are authenticated. This involves proving who sent and received the text messages.

For example, it might mean showing a screenshot or printout of the text dialogue and identifying the phone numbers associated with the messages. It may also include identifying certain aspects of the message that connect them with the sender, such as known use of emojis, expressions, phrases, or grammatical errors. For instance, the sender might use a certain nickname for someone, include notable slang, or consistently misspell certain words, identifying them as the author of the texts.

 

The Text Message Must Not be Hearsay

Piggybacking off the previous requirement, this one requires proof of the text exchange, aside from someone simply saying they read or received a certain text message. Instead, there must be some kind of evidence proving that the text message existed, such as a screenshot, printout, or cell phone record.

 

The Text Message Must be Relevant to the Case

Another requirement for the court to accept the text message is that it is relevant to the case. For instance, a prosecutor must show how the text message is associated with the defendant’s involvement in a crime or the issue. The court may not accept the text message as evidence if they can’t provide a probable connection between the texts and the situation.

Are Text Messages Legally Binding?

You’re probably wondering, are text messages legally binding? Yes, text messages can be legally binding, but before continuing, let’s review what it means to be legally binding in the first place.

If something is legally binding, it means it’s a legal agreement that’s enforceable and holds up under a law. For example, the contract is legally binding if two parties sign a statement of work agreeing to work together.

So, that brings us back to text messages. Are texts legally binding? Yes, under the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, or E-Sign Act, texts can be legally binding if they meet certain requirements, such as:

  • One party must make an offer that the other one is to accept
  • There must be an element of consideration, such as a fee for a service
  • Both parties must understand and intend for the text to be a contract
  • Both parties must be of sane mind and understand that they’re entering into a contract
  • Both parties must agree to the contract, such as by replying “yes” or “I agree”
  • The text must also include a link to the full formal contract or agreement

Remember that federal and state laws may vary when it comes to overseeing contracts and text messages, so be sure to consult an attorney or review the legislation that oversees your jurisdiction.

Can Text Messages be Used as Proof of Notice?

With a better understanding of the requirements of text messages in court and what makes them legally binding, let’s move on to text messages as proof of notices.

But first, what is proof of notice? Proof of notice, also called a written notice, is an official letter in writing informing someone of something. For instance, a landlord must provide written notice at least 24 hours before entering their tenant’s property. In other cases, a landlord must send a written notice to a tenant notifying them of an eviction.

That said, can text messages be used as proof of notice? Yes, text messages can sometimes be used as proof of notices as long as the sender and receiver understand that this information will be sent via text. Also, the sender must prove that the recipient read and received the text.

With that in mind, this is where there are some gray areas. For example, what if someone else picked up the recipient’s phone and deleted the message? Or what if the recipient didn’t have cell reception, so the message was never delivered? The sender can’t necessarily prove the message was received and read, in which case, the text message proof of notice might not stand up in a court of law.

Because of this, if someone wants to send a written notice, it’s often best to do so by certified mail so they have proof that the recipient physically received the message.

 

Drawbacks of Using Text Messages in Court

We’ve covered what you need to know about using text messages in court, but are there potential drawbacks to using text messages in court? Yes, there are some potential drawbacks to using text messaging in court, such as the possibility of being misleading or altered.

 

Misleading Text Messages

As with any kind of communication, sometimes the meaning behind a text message can get lost in translation. For example, maybe you wanted to convey humor or sarcasm in the text, but the recipient took the message at face value. Or perhaps you meant something as a joke in a text message, but the recipients interpreted it as a threat because you didn’t clarify. This, paired with the fact that text messages are often taken out of context from longer discussions, can alter your meaning and intention entirely.

Therefore, seemingly innocent text messages could be misunderstood or even used against you in court.

 

Altered or Fake Text

We previously explained the need for authentication messages to help ensure they haven’t been altered or completely fabricated.

For example, in one California court case, a woman purchased a prepaid cellphone in her partner’s name to send threatening text messages to herself, appearing as if her husband had sent them. However, there are countless other ways to falsify text message communication, such as by changing the names of people in your contact list to create a staged text conversation or using software to generate fake text threads.

These fake or doctored text messages could be accepted as evidence, falsely blaming or accusing someone of wrongdoing.

Example of Text Messages Used in Court

Now you know the answer to the question, can text messages be used in court, you might be interested in some real-life scenarios.

So, what are some examples of text messages used in court? Some famous examples of court cases that allowed text messages as evidence included the Aaron Hernandez murder case, the Michelle Carter texting suicide case, the Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick perjury case, and the Anthony Weiner sexting case. In these scenarios, the courts accepted text messages as evidence to help convict the defendant.

Today, text messages continue to be brought forth in all kinds of court cases, from breach of contract and employment law cases to family law cases and criminal cases.

 

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