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Social Media Companies Must Comply With Subpoenas for User Communications

By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 15, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a significant social media case, the California Supreme Court said Facebook and other social media companies must comply with subpoenas for information that users make public.

Facebook v. Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco is actually based on a criminal case, but it reaches beyond criminal law or procedure. In the underlying matter, Derrick D. Hunter and Lee Sullivan subpoenaed social media communications of a homicide victim and a witness.

The state Supreme Court said the defendants are entitled to social media posts and messages that the users made public. The judges remanded the case to the trial court to sort out which communications were public at the time.

For the Defense

Hunter and Sullivan were charged with murder in a drive-by shooting in San Francisco in 2013. Prosecutors allege it was gang-related.

The defendants sought certain videos and messages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for their defense. Sullivan said his girlfriend was the witness who identified him, and her social media would show she was mad at him for being involved with other women.

Overturning an appeals court ruling, the California Supreme Court weighed in favor of the defendants for information that was already public. Janelle Caywood, Sullivan's attorney, said it was "a huge deal."

"If there's a smoking gun, if there's a social media post that clearly shows our client is innocent and it's restricted access, we're going to come back and say the federal Constitution requires disclosure," she told SFGate.

For the Petitioners

The social media companies had refused the subpoenas, arguing they could not disclose the information under the federal Stored Communications Act. However, the California Supreme Court said there was an exception for "lawful consent" under Section 2702 of the Act.

"As we construe section 2702(b)(3)'s lawful consent exception, a provider must disclose any such communication pursuant to a subpoena that is authorized under state law," the judges said unanimously.

On remand, the trial court will determine what information qualifies for the exception. That would not include information that users restrict to a "group of friends or followers," and may not include information deleted before the subpoenas.

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