eDiscovery Daily Blog

eDiscovery Case Law: “Tweets” Are Public and Must Be Produced, Judge Rules


First, Malcolm Harris tried to quash a subpoena seeking production of his Tweets and his Twitter account user information in his New York criminal case.  That request was rejected, so Twitter then sought to quash the subpoena themselves, claiming that the order to produce the information imposed an “undue burden” on Twitter and even forced it to “violate federal law”.  Now, the criminal court judge has ruled on Twitter’s motion.

On June 30, in People v. Harris, 2011NY080152, New York Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr. ruled that Twitter must produce tweets and user information of, Harris, an Occupy Wall Street protester, who clashed with New York Police back in October of last year and faces disorderly conduct charges.

Noting that “The court order is not unreasonably burdensome to Twitter, as it does not take much to search and provide the data to the court.”, Judge Sciarrino provided an analogy regarding the privacy of the Twitter account information, as follows:

“Consider the following: a man walks to his window, opens the window, and screams down to a young lady, ‘I'm sorry I hit you, please come back upstairs.’ At trial, the People call a person who was walking across the street at the time this occurred. The prosecutor asks, ‘What did the defendant yell?’ Clearly the answer is relevant and the witness could be compelled to testify. Well today, the street is an online, information superhighway, and the witnesses can be the third party providers like Twitter, Facebook, Instragram, Pinterest, or the next hot social media application.”

Continuing, Judge Sciarrino stated: “If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. There is no proprietary interest in your tweets, which you have now gifted to the world. This is not the same as a private email, a private direct message, a private chat, or any of the other readily available ways to have a private conversation via the internet that now exist…Those private dialogues would require a warrant based on probable cause in order to access the relevant information.”

Judge Sciarrino indicated that his decision was “partially based on Twitter's then terms of service agreement. After the April 20, 2012 decision, Twitter changed its terms and policy effective May 17, 2012. The newly added portion states that: ‘You Retain Your Right To Any Content You Submit, Post Or Display On Or Through The Service.’”  So, it would be interesting to see if the same ruling would be applied for “tweets” and other information posted after that date.

Judge Sciarrino did note that the government must obtain a search warrant to compel a provider of Electronic Communication Service (“ECS”) to disclose contents of communication in its possession that are in temporary "electronic storage" for 180 days or less (18 USC §2703[a]).  So, he ordered “that Twitter disclose all non-content information and content information from September 15, 2011 to December 30, 2011” related to Harris’ account.

So, what do you think?  Did the judge make the right call or should Twitter have been able to quash the subpoena?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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