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Social media warrants and the Fourth Amendment

It is no secret that law enforcement agencies now rely on social media as means of gathering information to charge individuals with crimes. But where do authorities draw the line between zealous investigations and privacy violations? Chances are that what they believe to be a “legal” search may violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights when it comes to searching private social media accounts.

A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit may be instructive. The case involved the investigation of two suspects who were believed to be running a prostitution ring. The government executed two search warrants seeking information; one requiring Microsoft to provide specific emails, and another requiring Facebook to turn over the entire contents of a suspect’s account so that FBI agents could search it for evidence of a crime.  

The court ruled that the Microsoft warrant did not offend the Fourth Amendment because it called for satisfied particularity requirements and did not amount to a “general, exploratory rummaging” of email correspondence. However, it suggested that the Facebook warrant was problematic because it did not have such limitations and essentially called for any kind of data in the social media account.

Basically, general warrants for social media accounts may not be considered analogous to warrants that allow authorities to seize entire hard drives. A warrant must state with particularity the information sought as well as the time frame in which there is cause to believe relevant information would exist. A warrant for a social media account is not likely to comply with the Fourth Amendment if it appears to be a fishing expedition.

If you have questions about social media search warrants, an experienced criminal defense attorney can advise you. 

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