Facebook Fought The Law And The Law Won: Court Rules In Favor Of The Government When It Comes To Search Warrants For Your Private Facebook Account

Facebook…where millions of users are connected on a daily basis and millions of criminal masterminds post status updates to brag about their crimes.  Here is an example, “LOL! Just robbed a store!  Clerk didn’t know what to do! #yolo #thug #aintscared #comeandgetme #hardcore” posted by a criminal mastermind with an accompanying picture of the criminal mastermind holding the gun used in the robbery in one hand and the cash in the other hand.  Maybe this criminal mastermind ain’t scared, as his hashtag suggests, because his Facebook account is set to private and only his friends can see this post.  Well Mr. Criminal Mastermind, your days of posting your crimes are done.

In In Re 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook Inc., Facebook attempted to challenge search warrants they believed to be illegal.  The warrants in question ordered Facebook to turn over all information with regards to the accounts of 381 people, including private photos and conversations.  The 381 people were alleged to be committing disability fraud.  Believing they had probable cause to show disability fraud, the Manhattan District Attorney wanted to obtain this information to show that the specified individuals were actually living active lives while claiming to that they were so disabled and depressed they could not leave their homes.

To challenge the search warrants for their user’s private information, Facebook made a very creative argument.  Facebook moved the court to treat criminal search warrants served upon social media sites the same as civil subpoenas for records.  To help clarify the argument, take a look at the illustration below.

Police officers walk up to a house with a criminal search warrant in hand and knock on the front door.  Owner of the house answers and is handed the search warrant.   The police officers then instruct the homeowner to move out of the way so they can search the house.   The police officers go into the house and find 100 lbs. of cocaine.  I am sure it is for personal use only and not for trafficking.  In any event, believing this to be an illegal search of his house, the homeowner decides to challenge it in court.  There are two import aspects to this challenge, one it must be brought by the defendant and the challenge must be done after the state collects the evidence.  In other words, the search must happen first then the defendant can challenge it in court before trial.

Looking at that illustration, Facebook claims the search of their users’ private information is different from a physical search of a home because they must perform the search to gather and release the information.  Under this scenario, Facebook argued that this is similar to a civil subpoena for a user’s personal records which they may challenge it in court on their users’ behalf prior to giving up the records.

The appellate court did not find Facebook’s argument persuasive.   The court held that Facebook did not have legal standing to challenge a search warrant on behalf of their customers and that there is no constitutional or statutory right to challenge an allegedly defective search warrant before it has been executed.

Well that puts a huge damper on a lot of criminal masterminds across the Facebook community!  How are they supposed to brag about their crimes now?  Write an article to the newspaper about their crimes and hope it gets published?  You can’t even “like” a news article nor get the enjoyment that you are popular based on your post’s “like” count!  Way to ruin a great thing New York Appellate Court.  To protest this decision, I plan on inviting the whole appellate court panel to play Farmville on the hour every hour.

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