Facebook, Instagram and Twitter Win Court Ruling over Defendants’ Access to Private Accounts

Sunday, September 13, 2015
(graphic: Steve Straehley, AllGov)

A California appeals court has ruled that defendants in a murder trial are not entitled to access others’ social media accounts to help prove their innocence.


Derrick Hunter and Lee Sullivan are accused in the 2013 shooting death of Jaquan Rice and the wounding of his girlfriend. The defendants subpoenaed Facebook, Instagram and Twitter seeking the private messages of Rice and Renesha Lee, Sullivan’s former girlfriend and a prosecution witness. Defense attorneys say the records will help them prove that Rice was a dangerous criminal who had threatened others and that Lee was motivated by jealousy.


A lower court initially approved the subpoenas, but on appeal the social media companies won the right to keep the accounts private according to the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which restricts unauthorized access and disclosure of private online information. The appeals court ruled (pdf) that the defendants had no right to the records before their trial, but might be able to obtain them during their trial. “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,” Judge Terence Bruiniers wrote for the court.


The defense was disappointed in the ruling, even though they will be able to seek the records again during the trial. “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,” Sullivan’s attorney, Janelle Caywood, told Courthouse News Service.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Court Backs Social Media in SF Murder Case (by Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service)

Appeals Court Sides With Facebook in Fight Over Postings (by Sudhin Thanawala, Associated Press)

Facebook, Inc., et al., Petitioners, v. The Superior Court of San Francisco City And County,

Respondent; Derrick D. Hunter et al. (Court of Appeal of State of California) (pdf)


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