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Court of Appeals rejects Facebook bid to quash warrants

Photo Credit: AP / Matt Rourke

ALBANY

New York’s top court rejected Facebook’s attempt to quash search warrants seeking customers’ information, in a 5-1 decision issued Tuesday.

The state Court of Appeals determined that the social media giant essentially was trying to appeal a lower-court ruling that wasn’t, in fact, appealable.

In doing so, the court didn’t technically rule on Facebook’s claim that the warrants — secured by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in a wide-ranging probe of disability fraud — violated its Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure. Facebook wanted the authority to challenge search warrants on behalf of its clients.

Instead, the court upheld two lower court rulings saying that only a defendant, not the company, could challenge warrants and, further, search warrants had to be challenged in a criminal proceeding, not a civil one.

“Indeed, to hold otherwise would be to impermissibly and judicially create a right to appeal in a criminal matter that has not been authorized by our Legislature,” Judge Leslie Stein wrote for the majority.

Judge Rowan D. Wilson, the newest member of the court, dissented, saying that the majority misinterpreted the law and that Congress clearly has “granted service providers with a statutory right to quash” subpoenas.

The criminal case stems from Vance’s investigation of more than 130 cases of disability fraud lodged against police officers and former public employees. It was a fraud scheme allegedly masterminded by Massapequa attorney Raymond Lavallee, who pleaded guilty in 2015 to conspiracy charges.

So far, more than 100 individuals have been convicted, including 62 whose Facebook records were used in the case. Vance had sought records on 381 individuals.

Though Facebook fought on the legal front, it turned over records to prosecutors. One Facebook photograph that surfaced featured a former police officer, allegedly disabled, zipping around on a water motorcycle. Another showed a supposedly disabled man lifting a marlin he caught while deep-sea fishing.

In July 2015, a midlevel appeals court rejected Facebook’s claims that it could assert the Fourth Amendment rights of its users.

Civil liberties groups, other social media companies (Twitter, Meetup, Foursquare), computer giants Apple and Microsoft, and criminal defense attorneys have filed legal briefs in the case supporting Facebook.

Vance was “pleased with the outcome,” a spokeswoman said.

Facebook’s attorney didn’t comment immediately on the outcome.

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