How a Search of Your Social Media Accounts Can Become a Fourth Amendment Violation

Some things that are ubiquitous parts of our lives today probably would’ve seemed unimaginable 40, 30, or even 20 years ago. That includes developments like smartphones and social media. As technology evolves, so do the methods law enforcement officers use to pursue criminal suspects. Just as with anything else, though, a search of a social media account has the potential to represent a violation of the accused’s Fourth Amendment rights if it wasn’t backed by a valid search warrant. When it comes to getting illegally obtained evidence suppressed (whether that evidence was housed in something as old-fashioned as a bedroom closet or as modern as a TikTok account,) having representation from an experienced Maryland criminal defense lawyer often can enhance your chances of success.

Many times, this blog covers criminal issues arising from the Maryland courts. Today, we look at a federal criminal case for its insight into police searches of social media accounts.

According to federal prosecutors, T.R. was a member of the Cruddy Conniving Crutballs (a/k/a “Triple C,”) a Baltimore street gang. In the spring of 2021, federal prosecutors charged T.R. and 14 alleged Triple C members with various racketeering, conspiracy, drug, and gun crimes.

T.R. had an iPhone, which the government seized, subsequently engaging in searches of the phone as well as T.R.’s data on iCloud. The officers had obtained a search warrant before performing their searches.

The accused man sought to suppress evidence the government obtained from his Instagram account as a result of those searches, asserting three possible bases for suppression: (1) the officers lacked probable cause, (2) the warrant was illegally broad, and (3) the government did not abide by the promises it made.

The defendant’s probable cause argument failed. That failure illustrates the need, in some circumstances, to prove not just that the government lacked probable cause but that probable cause was blatantly absent.

That’s because of something called the “good faith” exception. That exception, originating with a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case (U.S. v. Leon,) says that proof “obtained in objectively reasonable reliance on a subsequently invalidated search warrant” isn’t subject to suppression unless there’s an obvious lack of probable cause. As the Supreme Court explained, if the warrant is the result of “an affidavit [completely] lacking in indicia of probable cause” or so utterly “facially deficient” as to make the government’s reliance on it unreasonable, then the exception doesn’t apply; otherwise, it does.

In T.R.’s case, the court agreed that the government had a probable cause problem, but ultimately ruled that the deficiency was not so extreme as to defeat the good faith exception.

Unreasonableness: How a Valid Search Can Become Invalid

Nevertheless, the accused man achieved success with his motion. He argued, and the court ruled, that the government overstepped the bounds of the warrant.

“The ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness,” the court instructed, quoting a 2006 Supreme Court ruling. In this instance, the government engaged in unreasonable delay in reviewing the Instagram information. Because the government’s inaction was not reasonable, the evidence ultimately obtained was not admissible.

As technology evolves, so will the law… and that includes search-and-seizure law. Part of presenting the best possible defense is having a legal advocate who is fully up-to-date on all the latest developments in the law. If you or a loved one are suspected (or accused) of a crime, get in touch with the knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC, who are fully versed on all the relevant law, including the latest developments, and who have the experience to know how to put that law to work for your benefit. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation.

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