Technology is developing so rapidly that the law is oftentimes a few steps behind. This is the case in criminal law as it applies to social media sites like Facebook. Federal law enforcement agents have been asking for warrants to search defendants’ private Facebook accounts and these requests are being granted more and more, and some people believe this trend will lead to legal challenges.
According to a Reuters analysis of a Westlaw database, the warrants were granted for the FBI, ICE and DEA for a variety of cases involving serious violent crimes, such as rape, terrorism and arson, and more than two dozen were granted since 2008.
Defendants may question whether these searches violated their civil rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of illegal search and seizure. The reason why many legal challenges have not already come up could be that most of these individuals whose accounts have been searched by law enforcement have not been notified that this happened.
According to an article on the subject in the International Business Times, one of the cases involved four Satanists accused of arson in Ohio. These individuals were sentenced to eight to ten years in prison for burning down a church. An FBI agent was granted a warrant to search the Facebook accounts of two of the people charged with arson. According to the IBT, it is not known whether what was obtained in the search was used to convict the individuals, but none of the defendants’ attorneys knew that the search had occurred.
Once more people find out that their accounts were searched, legal challenges to the evidence obtained in those searches may be seen. Little has been specifically decided by the courts regarding what kind of reasonable expectation of privacy people have these days with the information stored with third parties online. It is likely that more will have to be hammered out around this issue in the months and years to come.
Facing criminal charges? Arrested? Contact a Baltimore criminal lawyer before you talk to police or anyone else.
Source: International Business Times, “A new U.S. law-enforcement tool: Facebook searches,” Jeff John Roberts, 12 July 2011