Can Facebook Legally Challenge Search Warrants?

The Appellate Division for the First Department in New York state is tasked with determining whether Facebook and other social media companies can legally challenge search warrants in court in an effort to defend their users, The New York Times reported.

SearchWarrant650The Appellate Division for the First Department in New York state is tasked with determining whether Facebook and other social media companies can legally challenge search warrants in court in an effort to defend their users, The New York Times reported.

According to the Times, search warrants signed in 2013 by New York City Justice Melissa Jackson required Facebook to surrender all information on the accounts of 381 users, including private photos and messages.

The warrants were served in order to obtain indictments for disability fraud against more than 130 police officers and other former public employees. The Times reported, adding that the social network was prohibited from alerting affected users about the search warrants.

According to the Times, 302 of the 381 affected Facebook users were not charged with fraud, although some of the information in their accounts was used as evidence against others who were.

The Times reported that Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels asked assistant prosecutor Ben Rosenberg why prosecutors continued to “keep 302 people’s lives in their offices,” adding:

There is no question these Facebook accounts are like someone’s home — pictures, letters, conversations. You could do a physical search warrant and not get a smidgen of what you get out of Facebook.

Justice Judith J. Gische said, according to the Times, that state law does not permit search warrants to be appealed, adding:

Nobody wants the district attorney to have personal files (on those who are not indicted or being investigated). I think it’s clear that we as a bench perceive something troubling about what’s going on, but is this something that should be addressed legislatively? Is it really a legislative fix and not a court fix?

According to the Times, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office believes Facebook and other social networks have no more rights to challenge search warrants than the landlords of physical storage facilities would, with Rosenberg adding that search warrants can only be challenged by criminal defendants in pretrial hearings.

Thomas Dupree, a lawyer for Facebook, argued that the fact that the social network had to perform searches, format data and deliver it to prosecutors made these search warrants “different from a typical search warrant, where you stand aside and let the police come in with a box,” the Times reported, adding:

There is no possible justification for the warrants they served on us. (Private information was) swept up in the government dragnet. The government’s logic is chilling. Under the government’s position, they could seize the accounts for everyone in New York City and indict one person.

Presiding Justice Luis A. Gonzalez said the language used in the search warrants resembled the broad language used in subpoenas, according to the Times, adding:

I think it is reasonable for Facebook to argue that this language may turn what the people characterize as a warrant into a hybrid of a subpoena.

Readers: How should the court rule?

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