SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Facebook, Instagram and Twitter cannot be forced to turn over private user content of a murder victim and a witness ahead of trial, a California appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The decision by the San Francisco-based First Appellate District agreed with the social media sites that federal privacy laws outweigh a criminal defendant's right to such protected media information during pretrial proceedings.
The civil suit stems from the prosecution of Derrick Hunter and Lee Sullivan, who were accused of a 2013 drive-by shooting in the Bayview District of San Francisco that killed Jaquan Rice, Jr., 19, and seriously injured his girlfriend.
Prosecutors argued to the grand jury that Hunter and Sullivan were members of a criminal street gang and had engaged in "cyber banging" prior to the shootings. They contended that the suspects killed Rice because he was a member of a rival gang and had publicly threatened Hunter's brother in person and on Facebook and Instagram.
Before the trial, the suspects' lawyers served subpoenas on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter seeking the private postings of the murder victim and Sullivan's former girlfriend.
Sullivan argued that the social media postings would show that his ex, the only witness who implicated him in the shooting, was motivated by jealousy over Sullivan's involvement with other women.
He said that Rice's social media records would reveal the victim to be a violent criminal who threatened people, including Hunter's brother.
The trial judge refused to quash the subpoenas and ordered the social media sites to produce the material.
But a panel of the First Appellate District overturned that ruling, finding that social media companies should not be forced to give up federal privacy protections so early in the prosecution of a criminal case.
The Stored Communications Act, a 29-year-old law that restricts unauthorized access and disclosure of private online information, does not allow criminal defendants pretrial access to private online communications, the appeals court found.
"The consistent and clear teaching of both United States Supreme Court and California Supreme Court jurisprudence is that a criminal defendant's right to pretrial discovery is limited, and lacks any solid constitutional foundation," Judge Terence Bruiniers wrote for the panel. "Simply alleging that the material they seek might be helpful to their defense does not meet defendants' burden to show that the SCA is unconstitutional in denying them access to protected information at this stage of proceedings."
But the panel also noted that nothing in the ruling would preclude the defendants from seeking the materials at trial.
"The trial court would be far better equipped to balance the defendants' need for effective cross-examination and the policies the SCA is intended to serve," Bruiniers wrote.
Sullivan's attorney Janelle Caywood said they were excited that the state court ruled for the first time that a criminal defendant can get social media records potentially at trial, but disagreed with the court of appeal's ruling.
"We've been fighting this issue for a long time. Social media companies routinely turn over their records to police and prosecutors but they thumb their noses at defense subpoenas even if the records will prove that our clients are innocent of the criminal charges," Caywood told Courthouse News.
Defense attorneys need these records "because we have to prepare our case in advance of trial to find witnesses and evidence to exonerate our clients," she said, adding that social media records should not be compared to really private records like psychiatric records that are not available pretrial.
"Social media records, at their heart, are meant to be shared," she said.
Caywood says they will file a petition for review with the California Supreme Court within the next 10 days.
"We're in it for the long game," she said. "We think that we'll prevail in the end."
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