Sep 14, 2015 ยท 2 minutes

A California appeals court has ruled that Twitter, Instagram and other social networks don’t have to hand over the private data of a murder victim to his accused killers.

Attorneys for suspects Derrick Hunter and Lee Sullivan served subpoenas to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter seeking to obtain private messages sent by the victim, that they claimed would discredit the testimony of a major witness.

According to the ruling, the defendants argued that the privacy of the victim was superseded by their own right to a criminal defense:

Defendants responded that the requested information is necessary to properly defend against the pending charges, and that any statutory privacy protections afforded a social media user must yield to a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights to due process, presentation of a complete defense, and effective assistance of counsel.

The court documents also outline the scope of the data requested:

Sullivan’s counsel served subpoenas duces tecum (Pen. Code, § 1326, subd. (b)) on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, seeking records from the social media accounts of Rice and Lee. As to Facebook, the subpoena seeks “[a]ny and all public and private content,” including, but “not limited to user information, associated email addresses, photographs, videos, private messages, activity logs, posts, status updates, location data, and comments including information deleted by the account holder” for accounts belonging to Rice and to Lee. As to Instagram, the subpoena seeks “[a]ny and all public and private content,” including, but “not limited to user information, associated email addresses, photographs, videos, private messages, activity logs, posts, location data, and comments,” as well as “data deleted by the account holder” associated with accounts belonging to Rice and Lee. Sullivan’s subpoena to Twitter seeks similar information as to Lee only. Hunter’s subpoena to Twitter seeks a subset of that information for “all accounts” registered to Lee. Sullivan’s subpoenas also seek the identity of the custodian of records for petitioners who could authenticate the requested records.

The full ruling is embedded below -- and makes for interesting reading for anyone interested in the challenges of weighing justice with privacy.

Ultimately in a ruling that will give comfort to social media users, the court ruled that the privacy of users -- as guaranteed by the Stored Communications Act -- trumps the rights of a criminal defence attorney hoping to get his clients off a murder rap.