In the age of technology, social media has become the new frontier for evidence gathering in criminal cases. Especially amongst the younger population, the majority of communication is not simply verbal anymore—it’s written through Facebook messages, tweets, and pings, or even conveyed through pictures via Instagram, Twitpic, and Snapchat. To some, this may seem like a gold mine of information with any potential incriminating evidence entirely recorded somewhere in the Internet ether.
However, the Constitution has long protected the right to privacy. Thus, when it comes to online communications, especially those intended to be private, lawmakers and judges alike have been extraordinarily cautious in balancing one party’s need for information against another party’s right to privacy.
A recent decision rendered by the California Court of Appeals for San Francisco County rightly explained why the careful preservation of privacy in criminal cases is so important in an increasingly digital generation. Specifically, the Court held criminal defendants may not compel social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to disclose a victim’s private online communications before trial begins.
Can Criminal Defendants Use Victim’s Internet Profiles as Evidence?
The case involved a gang-related drive-by shooting in the Bayview District of San Francisco that resulted in the death of Jaquan Rice, Jr. and serious injuries to his girlfriend. The shooters were identified as Lee Sullivan and Derrick Hunter, both members of a gang called “Big Block.” In its case to the grand jury, the prosecution maintained Rice was a member of rival gang “West Mob,” and this gang rivalry was the driving force behind the drive-by and murder. San Francisco Police Department Gang Task Force expert Inspector Leonard Broberg testified to the grand jury that “gangsters are now in the 21st century and they … do something called cyberbanging. They will actually be gangsters on the Internet. They will issue challenges; will show signs of disrespect, whether it’s via images or whether it’s via the written word.”
Defendants Sullivan sought to obtain all public and private social media records from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter of Rice and purported witness Renesha Lee, the former girlfriend of Sullivan, to help build his defense case prior to trial. Sullivan believed such records would expose Rice as “a violent criminal who routinely posted rap videos and other posts threatening [Hunter] and other individuals.” The defense further argued that obtaining the records before trial was necessary to ensure Sullivan’s constitutional right to present a complete defense to the charges against them for a fair trial and their rights to effective legal assistance and confrontation of adverse witnesses.
Although the lower court bought defendant Sullivan’s arguments for the records, the Court of Appeals quickly and rightly reversed the decision and denied him access. However, the Court of Appeals did not deny access to such records indefinitely. The Court emphasized that pretrial access to confidential information by the defense was off limits, but the defense could potentially access such information during trial. The Court of Appeals reasoned that if it were to allow pretrial access, a trial court might be forced to weigh the defense’s need for information against a victim or witness’ right to privacy without enough information from either side to make a truly balanced decision. Such a process would be far too risky and the price could potentially be a breach of victims or witnesses’ constitutional right to privacy. The Court further maintained that enforcing this decision would not breach Sullivan’s constitutional rights to fair trial or effective assistance, because it was limited to pretrial access and any evidence required to afford him a full and fair trial could eventually play out once trial actually began. Thus, Sullivan was denied access to Rice and Lee’s social media records until trial.
This Court of Appeals decision sheds important light on how new mediums of evidence might fit into the frameworks of evidence law and criminal procedure without disrupting constitutional individual rights.