Sacramento lawyers are trying to drag Facebook into court over postings by the foreman of a jury for a trial he helped decide. Just like what we see in every day TV dramas: judges instruct jurors not to talk about the case, among themselves or with anybody else, while it is ongoing.
Facebook – a place to look for advice for a court case?
The defense attorneys represent five men, convicted in a reportedly vicious gang beating. They have subpoenaed records from Facebook to see what kind of feedback the juror got from his Facebook friends. The defense attorneys say the juror may have come under outside influences through his postings.
Last month, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael P. Kenny ordered Facebook to produce the posted exchanges. Kenny scheduled a December 17 hearing for Facebook to produce the records or face further litigation with the judge.
In an e-mailed statement to the Sacramento Bee newspaper, a Facebook spokesman declined to respond to the specifics of the case. Spokesman Frederic Wolens instead offered a generalized review of Facebook’s attempt to balance public safety concerns against user privacy.
"Like other companies holding personal records – from phone records to medical history ? Facebook works with law enforcement to the extent required by law and where appropriate to ensure the safety of Facebook users," Wolens said. "Our goal is to respect the balance between law enforcement’s need for information and the privacy rights of our users, and as a responsible company we adhere to the letter of the law."
Defense attorney Keith J. Staten said "we don’t know who responded, and that’s the problem. Did people engage in a conversation with him about what he felt like being at trial? What his feelings were about the evidence?"
The Sacramento case stems from an apparently unprovoked gang attack on a young man at a gas station near Sacramento?s Arden Fair shopping mall on Halloween night 2008. The man testified that his attackers asked where he was from. He said he responded "San Francisco", at which point they brutally beat him and broke two of his teeth. Prosecutors charged eight suspects. Three pleaded guilty and were sentenced. Five went to trial before Judge Kenny’s court.
UC Davis law professor Edward J. Imwinkelried said the law is unsettled on whether companies such as Facebook have to turn over the postings and whether their users can sue if they do.
"We’ve had little experience with it," Imwinkelried said. "The [companies'] argument is going to be, ‘If we comply, we’re only complying with the demands of the law.’ If you’re a customer, you’re going to be arguing, ‘You didn’t have an obligation to comply.’ "
Deputy District Attorney Jeff Hightower characterized the juror’s postings as "completely innocuous." Although the commentaries represented "a technical violation" of the admonition not to discuss the case, they did not reflect "favorably or unfavorably" on the evidence, the prosecutor said.
Staten says he still wants to see the Facebook writings. He also thinks, "Judges have to be very diligent in telling people not to communicate that way." However, Staten did acknowledge "there’s no physical way of stopping anyone from doing it when you can do it from your phone as soon as you step out of the courthouse."