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No Access to Facebook Messages for Ocean Beach Shooter

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on October 02, 2017 3:57 PM

As high-profile shootings stunned the world, a lesser-known shooting incident was changing social media law.

It happened in Ocean Beach, a small town in Southern California. It is most famous for the pier -- the longest on the West Coast.

It's also where Jeffrey Renteria was shot, and where his shooter tried to get his private Facebook information. Lance Touchstone said he needed it for his criminal defense; a state appeals court said, more or less, not over the law's dead body.

Facebook

Renteria survived the shooting, and while he was recuperating he was active on his Facebook account. He posted updates of his recovery from the hospital, and sent private messages over the system.

In public posts, Renteria discussed his personal use of funds and drugs. He also described his desire to rob and kill people.

Touchstone, who is awaiting trial, subpoenaed Facebook for the victim's nonpublic content. He said it might provide evidence to help him at trial.

Facebook asked the trial judge to quash the subpoena, but the judge denied the motion. Judge Kenneth K. So ordered the social media giant to produce the victim's information.

Stored Communications Act

On appeal, Facebook said it was legally stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the trial judge had ordered disclosure. On the other, federal law penalized such disclosures.

The Fourth District panel reversed the trial court, saying that Stored Communications Act prohibits Facebook from disclosing the victim's account information. Touchstone had argued that Renteria posted on his public pages about wanting to rob and kill people, and that he waived his private communications.

The court rejected the argument and analogized the situation to anybody who posts information on social media. The panel said families often send holiday greetings to people, but that is not "less private" because they may have many relatives.

"Similarly, a Facebook subscriber who posts electronic holiday greetings to specific individuals does not lose privacy protection because the user posts to a large group of individuals in contrast to a small group of individuals," the judges said in vacating the trial judge decision.

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