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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

D.C. court sides with Facebook, reverses order holding it in contempt over subpoena in murder case


By Chandra Lye | Jan 8, 2019


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has sided with Facebook over a question of whether it needed to release information in response to a court subpoena in a murder case.

Facebook filed an emergency appeal from a decision by the Superior Court of the District of Columbia that issued “an order holding Facebook in civil contempt for refusing to comply with subpoenas served by appellee Daron Wint,” said the Jan. 3 court decision, which was written by Associate Judge Roy W. McLeese. 

However, McLeese concluded that “Wint has not established the existence of a serious constitutional doubt that could warrant application of the doctrine of avoidance.”

Wint was charged with murder in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the opinion states. He filed with the court before trial to have Facebook release some communication information, but the company claimed it was not permitted to disclose information in response to a criminal defendant's subpoena due to the Stored Communications Act. 

A trial court upheld the subpoenas and found Facebook in civil contempt.

In defense of his position, Wint argued that a section of the Act “addresses only the circumstances in which providers may voluntarily disclose covered communications and does not address compliance with court-ordered disclosures, such as subpoenas,” McLeese wrote.

However, the court noted it was not persuaded. 

“The plain text of the SCA thus appears to foreclose Facebook from complying with Mr. Wint’s subpoenas,” McLeese wrote.

According to the opinion, "The SCA broadly prohibits providers from disclosing the contents of covered communications, stating that providers 'shall not knowingly divulge to any person or entity the contents' of covered communications, except as provided."

SCA has nine “enumerated exceptions” to the prohibition. Yet, none of them apply in the circumstances, McLeese wrote. 

McLeese added that Congress did not include criminal defendants' subpoenas on the list of exceptions.

“Although the SCA does not specifically address criminal defendants’ subpoenas, it does specifically and repeatedly address disclosures in response to subpoenas and other court orders,” McLeese wrote.

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FacebookSuperior Court of the District of ColumbiaDistrict of Columbia Court of Appeals

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