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Fourth Amendment Searches of Facebook Accounts

This month the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a decision which addressed how warrants to search social media accounts may violate the provisions the Fourth Amendment covering government searches and seizures. The defendants in the case were accused of operating a prostitution business. The government issued a warrant that required Microsoft to search the defendants email accounts and turn over any emails which concerned the exchange of sexual services for money. In United States v. Blake, No. 15-13395 (11th Cir. Aug. 21, 2017), the Court decided that this warrant met the 'particularity' requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court raised the possibility that a second warrant issued to Facebook may have violated the Fourth Amendment. It required that Facebook provide the government with all of the data from the defendant's social media account. It faulted the warrant for not specifying that searches be limited to direct messages relevant to the charges brought against the defendants:

"With respect to private instant messages, for example, the warrants could have limited the request to messages sent to or from persons suspected at that time of being prostitutes or customers. And the warrants should have requested data only from the period of time during which Moore was suspected of taking part in the prostitution conspiracy."

Id. at 20-21. In a footnote the court did criticize the Microsoft warrant for not specifying a particular date range, but said that:

". . . the warrant was appropriately limited in scope because it sought only discrete categories of emails that were connected to the alleged crimes. As a result, the lack of a time limitation did not render the warrant unconstitutional."

Id. at 20 n. 7. Despite its criticism of the Facebook warrant, the court did not specifically rule that it had violated the Fourth Amendment because any evidence obtained under it would have been covered by the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule that allows the police (or in this case FBI agents) to rely on a facially valid warrant.

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