If you post a video to a social media website like Facebook, but are careful to only share the video with your “friends” have you waived your expectation of privacy with regards to that video? The CA Appeals court says yes, even ifthe posting is automatically deleted within a certain time frame, and even ifit was shared with a small group of friends, one of whom shares it with others or was undercover police officer who had been posing as a “friend.”
In People v. Pridethe court heard a case which arose after a man had been mugged, and the attacker posted a video, shortly thereafter, of him wearing a gold chain stolen from the victim, and bragging about his new acquisition. Unfortunately for the defendant, an undercover police officer had infiltrated his “friend” group on social media, and saw the video. As they tend to do, the police officer preserved a copy of the video, and the prosecution used the video against the defendant during his criminal case.
The defendant objected to the admission of the video on several grounds, first that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they accessed his social media account under false pretenses: namely that the officer was pretending to be a friend when he was not. The defendant argued that social media was intended for private messages and thus he retained some expectation of privacy in the posting. Further, his expectation of privacy should also have been protected as the message was set to be automatically deleted once all the intended recipients of the video had watched it. The court noted that the inquiry into whether one’s expectation of privacy had been violated turns first upon whether the privacy right claimed by the defendant is one that “society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.” From there, the Fourth Amendment requires that a warrant, supported by probable cause, be obtained, absent certain extenuating circumstances.
While other states have discussed this issue, this case represents the first time a California court has sought to determine if California society “is prepared to recognize as reasonable” a privacy right which would prevent law enforcement from posing as a “false friend” to seek out incriminating information. Like the others states which have addressed this issue, California decided that the answer is no. The court references the Delaware Supreme Court, noting “[T]he Fourth Amendment does not guard against the risk that the person from whom one accepts a ‘friend request’ and to whom one voluntary (sic) disclosed such information might turn out to be an undercover officer or a ‘false friend.’ One cannot reasonably believe that such ‘false friends’ will not disclose incriminating statements or information to law enforcement—and acts under the risk that one such person might actually be an undercover government agent. And thus, one does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in incriminating information shared with them because that is not an expectation that the United States Supreme Court has said that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.” In short, a person’s legitimate expectation of privacy ends when he shares posts with ‘friends’ because those ‘friends’ are always free to use the information however they see fit.
Of note, the court also addressed the defendant’s assertion that the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act(which limits the government’s access to electronic communication information from a certain service providers,) prevented the prosecution’s use of the video. Citing that Act directly, the court noted the Act “…does not prohibit the intended recipient of an electronic communication from voluntarily disclosing electronic communication information concerning that communication to a government entity.”
So what lessons can we take from this case? First, don’t accept “friend” requests from people you don’t know. Second, don’t post anything to any social media sites you wouldn’t send directly to the police themselves.
P.C. §§ 1546 et seq.
 (Jan 10, 2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 133
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