Many Americans use emoticons and emojis in emails, text messages, and online chats to convey meaning that can't necessarily be gleaned from the written words themselves. A writer might use a smiley face to convey that she is joking or happy or a winkie face to suggest flirtation.
These images have become standard, even in business settings, but when they appear in trial evidence, courts have been forced to consider how they should be presented to the jury. This interesting article from the New York Times discusses an emoji fight between prosecutors and defense counsel in the criminal case against Ross Ulbricht, who is accused of running an online ebay-like site that sold drugs and other illegal items.
Prosecutors read several emails into the record but omitted emojis contained in those emails. The defense objected, and the judge ultimately determined that the jury should read the messages because they are "meant to be read" and should "note the punctuation and emoticons.”
Ulbricht's case isn't the only one where the meaning of emojis and emotions is at issue. Recently, 17-year-old Osiris Aristy was arrested by New York authorities for making terroristic threats after he posted a Facebook message that contained an emoji of a police officer and emojis of guns pointed at the officer's head.
I expect the meaning of emoticons and emojis will continue to arise in both criminal and civil cases, and law enforcement officers, attorneys, judges, and juries will continue to struggle to interpret the meanings of these symbols.