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Facebook denied in request to dispute warrants for user data

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Facebook denied in request to dispute warrants for user data."  My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Facebook denied in request to dispute warrants for user data  

Last week in 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook, Inc. v. New York County Dist. Attorney’s Off., (2015 NY Slip Op 06201) the New York Appellate Division, First Department considered an appeal brought by Facebook. In this appeal, Facebook sought to overturn the trial court’s refusal allow it to dispute search warrants issued by the New York County District Attorney’s Office and seeking access to 381 Facebook user’s accounts.

In the warrants, it was alleged that there was “reasonable cause to believe” that the Facebook data of the 381 users included evidence of offenses that included grand larceny in the second degree, grand larceny in the third degree, filing of a false instrument in the first degree and conspiracy. The state sought access to 24 categories of information that constituted nearly every post and action taken by the selected users on Facebook. The warrants also contained a nondisclosure provision preventing Facebook from disclosing the warrants to their users.

The court focused its analysis on determining the proper statutory basis for the warrant requests, concluding that they were more akin to search warrants as opposed to subpoenas issued pursuant to the Federal Stored Communications Act. Accordingly, the court held that Facebook had no legal basis for its motion to quash the warrant: “We now hold that Supreme Court’s summary denial of Facebook’s motion ‘to quash’ the search warrants was proper because there is no constitutional or statutory right to challenge an alleged defective warrant before it is executed. The key role of the judicial officer in issuing a search warrant is described generally by the Fourth Amendment and more specifically by state statutes. None of these sources refer to an inherent authority for a defendant or anyone else to challenge an allegedly defective warrant before it is executed.”

The court explained the basis for its determination as follows: “Facebook cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, Facebook is seeking the right to litigate pre-enforcement the constitutionality of the warrants on its customers’ behalf. But neither the Constitution nor New York Criminal Procedure Law provides the targets of the warrant the right to such a pre-enforcement challenge. On the other hand, Facebook also wants the probable cause standard of warrants, while retaining the pre-execution adversary process of subpoenas. We see no basis for providing Facebook a greater right than its customers are afforded.”

The court acknowledged the validity of privacy concerns raised by Facebook but ultimately declined to opine on those issues since the ruling on the procedural nature of the warrants negated the need to address those claims. “(W)e are cognizant that decisions involving the Fourth Amendment have the power to affect the everyday lives of all U.S. residents, not just criminal suspects and defendants. Our holding today does not mean that we do not appreciate Facebook’s concerns about the scope of the bulk warrants issued here or about the District Attorney’s alleged right to indefinitely retain the seized accounts of the uncharged Facebook users. Facebook users share more intimate personal information through their Facebook accounts than may be revealed through rummaging about one’s home. These bulk warrants demanded ‘all’ communications in 24 broad categories from the 381 targeted accounts. Yet, of the 381 targeted Facebook user accounts only 62 were actually charged with any crime.”

Accordingly, as it stands, the determination of the whether a warrant for social media is too broad continues to rest with trial court judges — some of whom unfortunately have a minimal understanding of the workings of social media platforms.

Facebook has indicated its intent to appeal the Appellate Division’s ruling, no doubt in part due to the massive amounts of administrative time and effort required to comply with these types of warrants, the numbers of which are only increasing in frequency as social media evidence becomes an important tool for prosecutors. So stay tuned; today’s decision may be overturned in the near future. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.