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Facebook goes to NY’s top court to quash search warrants

ALBANY — Facebook’s attempt to quash search warrants seeking customers’ information goes before New York’s highest court Tuesday, in a case that could have major implications for law enforcement investigations, social media companies and civil liberties.

The social media giant wants the authority to challenge search warrants on behalf of its clients. But two previous court rulings have gone against Facebook, determining that only a defendant can contest a search warrant, not the company. The courts have said Facebook has no legal standing because it wasn’t the target of an investigation but merely a repository of data.

Facebook has tried to argue that it should have the right to challenge what it concludes are illegal searches of customers’ files. It also contended the search warrants were overly broad.

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.

New York’s Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in Facebook’s appeal on Tuesday at 2 p.m.

The criminal case at the heart of the legal wrangling was brought by a Manhattan prosecutor but has strong Long Island connections.

It stems from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’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 (against illegal search and seizure) of its users.

“We now hold that Facebook cannot litigate the constitutionality of the warrant pre-enforcement on its customers’ behalf,” Justice Diane Renwick wrote in a unanimous opinion.

Facebook also had argued that a search of its files was different from a traditional, physical police search because the company had to execute it. The midlevel court didn’t buy that claim, either.

“To accept Facebook’s argument is to embrace the notion that a warrant is limited only to traditional search warrants authorizing law enforcement agents to forcibly enter and search,” Renwick wrote, an argument that is “oblivious” within the new “context of digital information.”

Correction: The State Court of Appeals will hear a case involving Facebook's attempt to quash search warrants seeking customers' information on Tuesday. This story initially misstated the date of the hearing.

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