The Supreme Court of California found this week that public Facebook communications are disclosable to the defense pursuant to a lawful subpoena. Criminal lawyers have circulated this ruling, Facebook v. Supreme Court, widely in the Los Angeles defense community that I am part of. However, another important course of argument for the defense to pursue that has not received as much attention is also alluded to in the Facebook decision. In my view, the defense may also be able to argue that federal limits on disclosure of private or restricted electronic communications are unconstitutional when they undermine Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.
The Stored Communications Act (SCA) imposes a federal limit on compelled disclosure from Internet sites, including Facebook. The SCA declares that, generally, service providers like Facebook may not disclose stored electronic communications except under specified circumstances. Exceptions include when a social media user consents to production of communications that she posted, and when such communications are compelled by law enforcement through search warrants or prosecutorial subpoenas. The defense, until this week, was long at a disadvantage when it came to obtaining production of electronic communications from servers like Facebook.
This week, the California Supreme Court ruled in Facebook v. Superior Court that public posts fit the SCA’s lawful consent exception, and that a provider must disclose public communications pursuant to a subpoena that is authorized under state law. Private or restricted communications between Internet users are deemed protected. There is some ambiguity to this ruling. For instance, how does a court distinguish public and private? Does a user need to set her entire profile as “public” in order for the communication to fall within an exception? Is there a limit on the number of people a communication can be sent to before it falls within the exception and can be compelled? The Court also left open whether accounts that were public and then changed to private could be subpoenaed. These issues are ripe for litigation.
Importantly, the Court also did not resolve the issue of whether the SCA is unconstitutional to the extent that it purports to afford providers a basis to refuse to comply with defense subpoenas. The defendants in the Facebook v. Superior Court matter argued that the SCA infringed their federal constitutional rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to a fair trial, to present a complete defense, and to cross-examine witnesses support their subpoenas. No court has ever found the SCA to be unconstitutional on this ground. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument on the basis that a criminal defendant’s right to pretrial discovery is limited, though it has observed that the SCA might eventually need to be declared unconstitutional to the extent that it precludes enforcement of such a trial subpoena issued by the trial court itself, or by defendants, with production to the court.
Given the Court of Appeal’s observations, and the Supreme Court of California’s decision to decide the case on other grounds, it seems that defendants may be able to raise this constitutional argument when electronic communications are treated as restricted or private and thus not producible. I seek production of social medial communications in many of the criminal cases that I defend, and I am very excited to litigate this issue in the future.