A unanimous decision by the California Supreme Court gives criminal defense attorneys the ability to obtain public communications by social media account users via subpoenas. Previously, an appeals court had decided that criminal defense lawyers could not force social media companies to comply with subpoenas that would require them to produce that kind of information before trial. This vital victory for the California criminal defense bar has been a long time coming. Defense attorneys in California and across America have been trying to gain access to public social media account information since 2008 because they could use that information to defend their clients. California’s Supreme Court is the first state Supreme Court to issue a ruling on this critical issue.
The case that led to the Supreme Court’s decision involved a gang-related killing and attempted killing in a drive-by shooting. One of the defendants, a fourteen-year-old boy, told police that the victim “tagged” him on Instagram in a video featuring guns and claimed that the victim would have shot him just like he had shot the victim. Defense lawyers for two of the defendants subpoenaed Twitter for information that a witness posted on the site, and one defense attorney subpoenaed Facebook and Instagram for the accounts of the victim and the witness. The social media companies did not comply with the subpoenas, claiming that the federal Stored Communications Act prohibited them from disclosing the communications. Two of the defendants were indicted.
Until the recent Supreme Court decision, social media companies relied on the federal Stored Communications Act, which they claimed bars them from turning over account information to defense attorneys except in extremely specific and limited circumstances. Interestingly, police and prosecutors have always been able to obtain public social media account information through warrants and subpoenas.
The Supreme Court’s decision requires social media companies to comply with subpoenas for information posted by their users that was public at the time of the request. If you’re reading this and thinking that it’s not that big of a deal because everyone can access social media information that is public, the Supreme Court ruling provides a necessary element that enables defense attorneys to be able to use the information in defense of their clients effectively. Before the ruling, social media communications were not admissible in court unless the social media company or the user who posted the information confirmed that the communications were authentic.
What would usually happen is that a criminal defense attorney would subpoena records from a social media company like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and that subpoena would go unanswered. Thanks to the California Supreme Court, social media companies must comply with the subpoenas, except in limited circumstances where they may challenge them. When a company challenges a subpoena, the company must either show that the person requesting the information can obtain it some other way or demonstrate that complying with the subpoena would create an undue burden on the company.
If you have been accused of a crime, A criminal defense attorney can help you understand your rights, as well as what options are available to you.