Social media companies must now turn over public communications to criminal defendants.
For a decade, criminal defense attorneys in California have fought for a relatively basic ruling, one that would put them on more equal footing with prosecutors and give them the ability to better defend their clients. In late May, the California Supreme Court issued that ruling. Now, social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, will have to turn over users’ public communications to criminal defendants in response to subpoenas. This ruling is a big win for California criminal defendants, as it will help them obtain a more fair trial.
Before getting into the details of the court case, it is important to understand why these communications were so necessary. In many criminal cases, victims, witnesses and defendants have communicated about the alleged crime and talked about it on social media. Police and prosecutors can freely obtain access to social media accounts through warrants and subpoenas. According to a knowledgeable San Bernardino criminal defense attorney, lawyers representing defendants in criminal cases were routinely denied the same access.
While defense attorneys could obtain public information, just like anyone else, these communications could not be used in court unless they were confirmed as being authentic. That could only be done (1) by the user or (2) by the social media company. Because many users (such as victims or witnesses) would not confirm the authenticity of their postings, defense lawyers were forced to ask social media companies to do so. But the companies refused, saying that the federal Stored Communications Act prevented them from disclosing stored electronic communications except in limited circumstances.
According to a San Bernardino criminal defense attorney, the case of Facebook, Inc. v. Derrick D. Hunter changed that. In the underlying case, a 14 year old boy participated in a what was alleged to be a gang-related drive-by shooting that left one dead and another injured. The boy was indicted, along with two others. He told police that the victim had “tagged” him on Instagram in a video featuring guns, and that he shot him 6 times. He then claimed that the victim would have done the same to him. Defense attorneys served subpoenas on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for communications posted by witnesses and the victim. The companies refused to turn them over, citing the Stored Communications Act. The lawyers appealed, and eventually, the California Supreme Court ruled in the defendants’ favor.
According to the Supreme Court, social media companies have comply with subpoenas for users’ information that was public at the time of the request.
While this ruling may seem obscure, involving a federal act and subpoenas, it is significant for anyone with a pending criminal case in California. It gives San Bernardino criminal defense attorney full and fair access to the information that they need to defend their clients. The communications that they receive from companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram might be evidence that can convince a prosecutor to dismiss charges — or lead to a finding of “not guilty” a trial. That is why this ruling is so important.
At the Chambers Law Firm, our team of experienced professionals is dedicated to serving our clients, including by staying on top of changes to the law. We aggressively pursue all available avenues to defend our clients, including by subpoenaing social media communications. Contact our office today at 855-397-0210 or firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free initial consultation with a San Bernardino criminal defense attorney today.