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Portland Jumps into Facebook Privacy Fight

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A Portland, Oregon murder trial could change the ability of Facebook and other social media companies to refuse to give out information about their users and the content they post. While Facebook claims that its content is protected under federal privacy laws, criminal defense lawyers say their client’s constitutional rights trump the federal statute.

This issue has come to a head as hundreds of claims for information have been served on Facebook, with Facebook refusing to release records and other information that defense lawyers believe are important to their cases. For instance, the trial of Parrish Bennette Jr., accused of murdering Yashanee Vaughn in Multnomah County, Oregon, has created a legal battle for this information.

In Bennette Jr.’s case, his lawyer wants Facebook content because of alleged posts that show a material witness lied to police about Bennette Jr.’s involvement—information that is potentially very useful in providing a complete defense. Bennette Jr.’s lawyer has requested that Facebook be held in contempt for refusing to follow a subpoena and court order to turn over records. While Facebook has not yet been held in contempt, they are flirting with it.

One of the problems defense lawyers have with Facebook and other social media sites is that when the government asks for information, they turn it over without hesitation, but when a defense lawyer asks for records, they get the cold shoulder. It seems that if information is readily given to put people in jail, that same readiness should occur to keep people out.

As we dive into the ever-increasing technological age, this issue is not soon to go away. If the judge on Bennette Jr.’s trial holds Facebook in contempt, that could set a precedent to change the way social media information is given to defense lawyers—which could change the way lawyers can effectively represent their clients.

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