Since its inception social media has created quite a conundrum in courtrooms across the country. Interactions between people involved in a legal proceeding are governed, as other aspects are, by the rules of evidence. These rules, while often ambiguous and open to interpretation, set the foundation on which attorneys and judges determine whether evidence may be admitted in court. Historically, interactions that judges ruled on involved conversations between people, records concerning any number of processes (i.e. call logs, medical records, business procedures, land deeds, etc.), or photographic documentation. The rules not only determine whether the evidence is admissible, but also explain exactly what information is needed before the evidence is admitted. In the past these types of interactions were traceable to a human source and the rules explained which dots that person must connect (sometimes referred to as “chain of custody”) before the evidence in admitted. With the advent of social media, the dots have become much less connectable in the context of the traditionally written rules of evidence.
Imagine a conversation between a criminal defendant and a witness to the crime. Imagine further that this witness is the only witness implicating this defendant. Now take this scenario one step further and imagine that this witness has a long history of jealousy and animosity toward this defendant. In the past there would be little dispute that the defense attorney is permitted to address this issue before the jury. However, when California defendant Lee Sullivan attempted to bring this same conversation before a jury at his criminal trial, a California Appellate Court ruled that this was impermissible. The trial court sided with Sullivan claiming that he did have a right to admit these conversations. The trial court cited the defendant’s constitutional protection to all information that will aid him in his defense. The appellate court disagreed. Effectively, this barred Sullivan’s chance to attack the character and credibility of the witness disallowing him to procure and admit evidence of the witness’s statements on social media.
The San Francisco-based 1st District Court of appeals effectively shut down the defendant’s constitutional protection to admit all evidence in his defense. The court ruled that subpoenas sent by the defendant on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to obtain the witness’ account postings were invalid. The court reasoned , as the social media companies did, that federal privacy laws that protect the witness’s accounts bar the release of such information. The result of this ruling is that California criminal defendants are barred from using evidence that was once posted on social media in their defense. Given that a vast majority of interpersonal interaction now takes place online this may prove a significant barrier to California criminal defenses.
A successful criminal appeal requires a knowledgeable and dedicated criminal appeals attorney. If you have questions about how to file a criminal appeal in California contact our team at Brownstone Appellate Litigation Law Firm today for a free consultation.
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