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Social Media Case Law and the Expectation of Privacy: US v. Meregildo

February 28, 2020

Over the last decade, social media platforms have grown in popularity. Virtually everyone uses some form of social media to connect with friends and family members. From Facebook to Instagram, it is not uncommon for an individual or organization to have a half dozen social media accounts. These social media accounts can offer invaluable insight during litigation. But is that information for public use or is it private? Is this information allowed as evidence in court? 

Social media and the expectation of privacy is a hot topic in courtrooms across the United States. To understand how social media privacy works during litigation, consider the case of United States v. Meregildo. 

Understanding the Case

In United States v. Meregildo, the defendant Melvin Colon wanted to suppress evidence that the government obtained from his Facebook account. The government accessed this information from his Facebook “friend” who cooperated with law enforcement. Colon’s Facebook “friend” gave the government access to view Colon’s profile.

The Judge in the case evaluated the evidence in the context of Colon’s privacy settings and his circle of friends. The Judge denied Colon’s motion to suppress and said that his Facebook information was lawfully obtained and useful in the case.  

The Judge emphasized the privacy settings used by Colon on his Facebook account. These privacy settings allowed the cooperating witness, Colon’s Facebook “friend,” to see the messages he posted to his account. As such, the Judge ruled that accessing this information was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Colon allowed “friends” to view his posts and he had a wide circle of friends. The Judge believed that because of this, Colon’s expectation of privacy ended when he posted on Facebook.

You can find more about United States v. Meregildo on our Social Media Case Law page.

Social Media and a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

The Supreme Court has long held that a person has a protected right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. The constitution protects this right. However,  when it comes to social media, this expectation is not absolute and is frankly almost non-existent. This is because by design, many people can view the information. 

Facebook users can control privacy settings and determine who sees their posts and other information. In United States v. Meregildo, Colon posted messages detailing acts of violence and threatening new violence to rival gangs. His Facebook apparently had strict privacy settings allowing only “friends” to view his posts.

This case shows however that even if a user does have strict privacy settings, and allows only “friends” to view posts, he or she cannot claim that this information is private. “Friends” share the content they have access to with whoever they want. This provided the government with access and probable cause in a search warrant application.

Have a Social Media Investigation Team On Your Side

Keep in mind that just having access to online posts is often insufficient as social media evidence. You still need to prove authorship and authenticity. A screenshot or printout is generally not enough. Law firms and insurance companies should rely on the expertise of a social media investigation team for this type of investigation

Since 1988, Bosco Legal Services, Inc. has provided valuable services to law firms, insurance companies and businesses. As social media emerged, we tailored our investigations to include valuable online data. That is one reason we are a recognized leader in the field of social media investigations. 

Contact our social media investigators at Bosco Legal Services, Inc. to discuss your situation in greater detail. Based in California, we provide social media investigations nationwide. Call our office today at (877) 353-8281 to discuss your situation. You can also fill out our online contact form, and someone from our office will be in touch with you soon.