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In Oregon, it is legal to break into a car to get a child or domestic animal out in hot weather. Suppose I see a child left in a hot car. I don't know how to break in, so I Google "how to break into a car."

A few months later, the police in another town search my phone for an unrelated reason. They see that I Googled how to break into a car. Could there be any legal consequences for me?

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    As addition to the other answers, conspiracy is a crime in itself. So, if you gang with some people in order to, say, do terrorist bombings, and as part of that you search in the internet about how to prepare bombs, that could be evidence of the crime even if no bomb is ever built.
    – SJuan76
    Jul 5 at 18:56
  • There could be 'consequences' for Googling how to do something benign if it can be proven to have assisted you in the commission of a crime, or obviously if it helps proves a crime was committed. Never write nothin down.
    – Mazura
    Jul 6 at 9:11
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    It might possibly not be a crime though as points below have stated could be evidence. However, in my own experience trying to fact-check, it could get you flagged by the search engine depending on how they monitor the users which could result in temporary closer observation.
    – Merlin
    Jul 6 at 13:59
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    Using Bing though ... Jul 6 at 20:33
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    I hope there are no consequences for opening this thread!! Jul 8 at 2:53

6 Answers 6

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The Google search is not itself a crime or any other kind of offense.

It could be used as circumstantial evidence that you did something intentionally or with pre-mediation, rather than accidentally, or not at all.

If you can provide an alternative explanation for the search that is plausible, such as the one in the question, and there isn't a close proximity of time, a jury is unlikely to give the search much weight as circumstantial evidence. But ultimately, the weight to give any piece of evidence is for the jury to decide in the context of all of the evidence in the case combined.

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    For inststance you would lose the opportunity to credibly use the defence that you did not know how to break into cars.
    – Jasen
    Jul 6 at 8:39
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    While the act of Googling is not a crime in isolation, the context can change here. For example, if OP also affiliates themselves with certain people who also happen to be car thieves, even though OP doesn't actually partake in these crimes and their relation is merely coincidence; their Googling can be construed as membership to a conspiracy, effectively rendering them punished for Googling. While the law may not call Googling a crime in and of itself; in reality it can and will punish someone for doing nothing but Googling in certain circumstances, functionally rendering it a crime.
    – Flater
    Jul 6 at 9:18
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    @Mazura Would it be sufficient on its own to show premeditation? Has that ever been the case that such a determination was made solely on a search history? Because I feel if you have to ask Google "how to kill wife", chances are you left plenty of other evidence of your guilt and premeditation anyways. Jul 8 at 9:10
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    If you're going to murder you wife, try not to have murdered your previous three wives. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drew_Peterson
    – Mazura
    Jul 8 at 19:20
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    The reason why this would not be illegal is that "you'd be surprised what you can learn if you include the phrase 'I'm writing a book' . There may be a reason to know with some accuracy how to produce an illegal product. If it's critical to a plot, you might know how to do it right, so you can avoid showing it done right. Breaking Bad writers were taught how to cook Meth... but this was so they could avoid showing it to audiences. To quote Mythbusters "This is made with blur. And this has blur. Blur is dangerous. Never mix Blur with Blur!"
    – hszmv
    Jul 13 at 12:14
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If it were a crime to search, we'd all be in jail

A lot of things are crimes if done. However, people often look for information about such things to either understand how not to commit the crime (e.g. googling speed limits), understand what happened (How did ENRON work?), or just plainly, because they write a story and thus need to know the law - or how it was violated. Or just because they are goofballs and want to know about a certain person, case, or method of death. None of this is illegal, as long as you don't act on it.

Internet searches can be evidence

There have been cases, where evidence of a web search was used as circumstantial evidence in addition to other pieces. If you are familiar with Forensic Files, you'll know that in many of the older episodes this pattern appears, and in newer episodes reconstruction of the search history sometimes plays a place.

For example, Season 11, Episode 17, depicts the murder of Sherry Durall. One of the forensics team says about her husband Robert Durall:

Bob's internet search engine revealed he looked for information on all sorts of diabolical schemes. We were shocked to see these searches on things like "poison herbs", "death something", about sedation of people, also about smothering but the most graphic one was actually a search that Durall did on the words "kill spouse".

Robert Durall did appeal his conviction in or before 2003. In the brief the case history and legal history are depicted. In part, I want to point out, that no small part of the discussion is dedicated to the fact, that they used his internet searches as circumstantial evidence, to establish his mens rea and justify first-degree murder.

In its conclusion that "Durall's mental state, including his research and planning of his wife's death, which preceded the murder for months, was qualitatively and quantitatively much more egregious and culpable than that required to prove meditated intent,” the trial court relied upon the following facts: on several occasions during the months be- fore Carolyn's murder, Durall conducted internet research on how to kill his wife;! Durall stated in e-mails to women he met on an internet dating service that he dreaded the prospect of a divorce and he had "a plan" to resolve his unsatisfactory marriage: Durall met with one woman six months before Carolyn's murder and told her that it would be easier if his wife were dead; and Durall made a list of tasks and items needed for the crime. In addition, Durall took elaborate steps to cover up the crime, including hiring a private investigator, cleaning and concealing blood stains from the murder, disposing of his wife's body in a rural area, suggesting to police, friends, Carolyn's co-workers, and family that Carolyn had run off with another man, and concocting an alibi to comport to these facts.

Durall conducted searches using the following terms: “murder;" "kill spouse;" "accidental death;" "smothering:" "+poison —herbs;" "+poison t+herbs —death;" and "sleep +pills +death."

As seen in Wood, the degree of Durall's planning and research distinguishes this case apart from more typical mur- der cases. Moreover, while the defendant in Wood used third parties to explore means of killing her husband, Durall's use of the internet to do the same suggests a similarly culpable mental state.

Qualitatively, Durall's actions are similar to those seen in State v. Vaughn, 83 Wn. App. 669, 924 P.2d 27 (1996), a case cited by both parties.

While the search can be evidence, it also requires other evidence to make a conviction. If there is a different explanation or even evidence that the searching person wasn't even there, that evidence has to be taken into account too.

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  • So it's okay for me to Google "how to break into a car," but if someone breaks into my neighbor's car right after I Google it, my search could be evidence that I was the one who did it?
    – Someone
    Jul 5 at 18:42
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    no, it could be evidence that you might have done it, if you also had the chance to do it, and the other means.
    – Trish
    Jul 5 at 18:49
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    Forensic Files : Anything you search for can and will be used against you in a court of law.
    – Mazura
    Jul 6 at 9:06
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    @nanoman Internet usage has lost its novelty that draws much curiosity and increases ratings for TV programs.
    – xngtng
    Jul 7 at 13:08
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    @Someone If you were a suspect, and a search warrant to search your computer was obtained, then searches for how to break into a car could be used as additional evidence of your involvement. However, the police are not able to just look up anyone who may have recently searched for that subject and then charge them. Jul 7 at 17:37
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the police in another town search my phone for an unrelated reason. They see that I Googled how to break into a car. Could there be any legal consequences for me?

If you're breaking into a car to rescue a child, you're presumably not then leaving them on the side of the road and throwing yourself a hero's parade.

You should be calling the police and documenting what you observed and what you did to resolve the situation-- and handing the child off to responding officers/CPS. This way the perpetrator is held accountable, you clear yourself of suspicion, and the victim is actually secured.

Were any questions to later arise about the nature of your search query, you now have a plausible, defensible, and verifiable reason for having done so.

You need to do this anyway so EMTs can evaluate victim for conditions like heatstroke-- and to cover your own ass against the inevitable counter-claim that you were attempting grand theft auto and kidnapping. This assumes you were not murdered on the spot by the perpetrator in defense of his property.

If you're going to play lawman, then at least act like one and call for backup before intervening. Everything has consequences!

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    Also, you would probably want to call 911 first, report that you're witnessing a child being in danger, and ask for further instructions.
    – Dreamer
    Jul 7 at 11:22
  • @Dreamer And I'd add that calls to emergency services are typically recorded, so if you're actually acting in good faith under instructions, that'll help establish that. Jul 8 at 9:01
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I am a translator and I google such things a lot, when I work on a movie or a TV Series. Imagine you have to translate Breaking Bad series: you will google meth cooking a lot in order to find language-specific terms and slang words. Never had any pbm with that.

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    Welcome to LawSE. Although an interesting anecdote it does not answer the question from a legal perspective. This is Q&A site and not forum. You can see how things works here by taking the Tour and reading through our Help centre - especially the part on How do I write a good answer?.
    – Rick
    Jul 14 at 12:03
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If you do it at work, and your employer notices, they might call the cops on you. It happened after the Boston marathon bombing, when six members of a joint anti-terrorism force came to a man's house and interrogated him because he made a Google search about pressure cookers and his employer got concerned: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/08/government-knocking-doors-because-google-searches/312599/

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Here's an attempt at using a particular song download as evidence in a murder trial: https://www.news4jax.com/news/2006/06/14/used-to-love-her-download-played-for-jury-in-husbands-murder-trial-2/

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    Welcome to LawSE. Link-only answers are likey to be deleted as being low quality, so you should consider citing and quoting the relevant legislation from a reputable source that addresses the question. You can see how things works here by taking the Tour and reading through our Help centre - especially the part on How do I write a good answer?.
    – Rick
    Jul 14 at 20:25
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