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Murder case involving social media goes to CA Supreme Court

The California Supreme Court will soon hear the matter of what defines privacy on social media websites.

The case that prompted this debate was the 2013 murder of a young man in San Francisco, and social media was central to the reason for the killing.

Case overview

A 14-year-old boy confessed to the drive-by shooting of a 19-year-old. The murderer explained to police that he acted because he had been the subject of violent Facebook and Instagram messages from the victim, Jaquan Rice. The boy was convinced Rice would have killed him first if he had found an opportunity. The teenager also implicated his brother and another man in the crime, both of whom had been in the car with him.

The Stored Communications Act

The boy was convicted in juvenile court. In December 2014, lawyers working with the adult defendants subpoenaed Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, wanting information from the accounts of both the victim and Lee Sullivan, one of the defendants. Company lawyers said that under the Stored Communications Act, either a warrant or court order would be required to obtain private social media information. However, there must first be a probable cause finding. A trial judge later dismissed the attorneys' motion, saying that the defendants had a constitutional right to social media records prior to trial. The social media attorneys then went to the appeals court, and the ruling there was that the rights to social media records would not be available until the actual trial phase of the case.

On to the high court

The murder case brought up some interesting questions: Can posts on social media sites really be considered private if they have already been shared with friends and family? Should the decades-old Stored Communications Act undergo updates for our times? Social media is becoming increasingly important in the legal world, and defense attorneys experienced with cases involving both federal and state crimes will be waiting to see how the California Supreme Court will rule in this unusual matter.

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