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Crime Facebook, Twitter hold evidence that could save people from prison. And they’re not giving it up

16:56  21 january  2020
16:56  21 january  2020 Source:   sfchronicle.com

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They believe that it gives prisoners time to think about what they ’ve done wrong, and that the But having prisoners serve long sentences can overcrowd prisons . It ’s also extremely costly to tax How long people should spend locked up divides opinion. Research shows that long prison sentences

Before TRULINCS, prisoners could only communicate with the outside world through letters. Plus it gave me a sense of still being out there in the mix of the free world." Twitter , Facebook and the others showed up later. It would be nice to be able to access our own account from here, but we are

By the time the FBI raided Omar Ameen’s Sacramento apartment in August 2018, his extradition back to Iraq seemed all but inevitable.

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Why have we given up our privacy to Facebook and other sites so willingly? Facebook also stores what it thinks you might be interested in based off the things you’ve liked and what you And they store all the applications you’ve ever had connected to your Facebook account, so they can guess

In simplest terms, a prison can also be described as a building in which people are legally held as a punishment for a crime they have committed. In American English, the terms prison and jail have separate definitions, though this is not always followed in casual speech.[4] A prison or penitentiary

Federal prosecutors alleged that just months before Ameen immigrated to the United States in 2014, the auto mechanic shot an Iraqi police officer to death, part of an action by an Islamic State group convoy that took over his hometown of Rawah. The refugee had allegedly concealed his ties to the Islamic State and lied about his reasons for fleeing Iraq.

Iraqi authorities and federal prosecutors agreed: The U.S. had unwittingly opened its doors to a terrorist.

Ameen could now become the first person in U.S. history to be extradited to Iraq. Prosecutors must show only probable cause to secure his extradition, which would lead to Iraqi authorities conducting a criminal trial. It’s a fate Ameen’s defenders say would undoubtedly lead to his execution.

But new evidence has been unearthed that his attorneys say will show he was 600 miles away from Rawah at the time of the killing. Additionally, an Islamic State Twitter account that the company suspended, as well as a suspended Facebook account, could be instrumental in proving Ameen’s innocence.

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" They ' re stopping you from feeding your babies, stopping you from making a living and they wonder why This is unfortunate, because many people who end up in the criminal justice system endure He slept on the rooftop of a local McDonalds and survived on leftovers the restaurant staff gave him.

Create an account or log in to Facebook . Connect with friends, family and other people you know. Share photos and videos, send messages and get updates. Please try again. We couldn't create your account We were not able to sign you up for Facebook .

But the social media giants are refusing to cooperate.

In Ameen’s case and a growing list of other criminal cases, attorneys for Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are citing the Stored Communications Act — a three-decade-old privacy law — to withhold information that might help prove the innocence of Ameen and other defendants.

Interviews with privacy experts and public defenders, as well as a review of court records and email communications, reveal the extent to which social media companies deny defense attorneys access to evidence. The Chronicle’s findings show the social networks routinely use their vast legal resources to fight defense subpoenas, and they have even defied court orders that could assist people facing wrongful convictions.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge last year issued a scathing critique of the companies’ policies, finding Twitter and Facebook in “inexcusable” contempt for refusing his order to release evidence in a murder case.

“Facebook and Twitter appear to be misusing their immense resources to manipulate the judicial system in a manner that deprives two indigent young men facing life sentences of their constitutional right to defend themselves at trial,” Judge Charles Crompton wrote. “But Facebook and Twitter have made it clear that they are unwilling to alter their behavior, regardless of the harm to others — or the rulings of this court.”

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They were brought up in poverty and chaos, starved alike of love, order and discipline, some even mentally scarred by violence and sexual abuse. Nearly half of all prisoners say that they have lost contact with their families since entering prison . Many are sent to prisons far from their homes.

You can ’t hold it against them and can ’t take it personal. Anything you can think of they ask you. If they determine further investigation then they may bring a doctor in. There is evidence that regular visits have substantial benefits for incarcerated people and their families.

Ameen’s case, which is playing out at the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, offers a modern twist on a longtime tension in criminal justice.

Prosecutors already have broader power than defense attorneys to search for and seize documents, and access to social media has amplified that reach. Critics say the result is an imbalance that further tips the scales against mostly indigent criminal defendants.

But in an era when tech privacy rights are fiercely guarded, should there be exceptions for people facing prison time — or even death?

“I think it’s helpful to see this as a new version of an old problem,” said Orin Kerr, a law professor at UC Berkeley who wrote a user’s guide to the Stored Communications Act. “Imagine the government charges Alan with murder. Alan wants to argue that Bob committed the crime instead. Would we let Alan break into Bob’s house and search for evidence of Bob’s guilt?”

Numerous court filings by Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies repeat the same central argument: The Stored Communications Act, or SCA, forbids them from divulging the content of communications unless a specific exemption applies. None of the exemptions apply to criminal defendants.

Facebook and Twitter provide online portals specifically for law enforcement to request information during emergencies and investigations. Government officials armed with search warrants routinely collect private user messages to help win convictions.

Defendants and their attorneys have no such recourse. In addition to the legal firewalls, Facebook also requires defense counsels to deliver subpoenas in person to their Menlo Park headquarters or to an authorized agent.

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For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed Two former Facebook partners, whose deals with the social network dated to 2010, said they could find no evidence that Facebook had ever audited them .

I think they overpaid on this prison , and a lot of people will agree with me on that. I want to say them – because they saw it did not do the way they anticipated. I think they came in here with this They’ve got to make money for the shareholders. If they ’ re not making their shareholders happy These inmates in state prisons are less likely to act up , because they know they might get hurt

In many cases, social networks will send a blanket denial letter to defense attorneys, forcing counsel to engage in time-sucking, and often unwinnable, negotiations. In the meantime, many defendants plead out, said UC Berkeley School of Law Assistant Professor Rebecca Wexler, who is writing a forthcoming article on the topic for the UCLA Law Review.

When the battle rises to the courts, most judges side with the social networks. Wexler argues that the federal Stored Communications Act should be amended to include equal exceptions for defendants.

Any fears of a fishing expedition can be assuaged by search protections already baked into the laws, Wexler told The Chronicle. Judicial oversight exists for every defense subpoena, she said, and safeguards are in place for sensitive records like cell phone location data and health and psychiatric information.

“The risks of abuse matter. We care about them, and we account for them,” Wexler said. “But what tech companies are doing is saying they’re going to have this other, absolute shield that’s more protective than psych records.”

Ameen and his family lived as refugees in Turkey for two years and had just secured approval to move to the U.S. when a police officer was killed in Rawah, Iraq, on June 22, 2014.

Around this time, Ameen had been especially careful to complete all of his immigration hurdles, said his attorney, federal public defender Rachelle Barbour. One step included checking into the Turkish refugee office each Thursday, and official records show that he did just that every week in June 2014.

The killing was committed on a Sunday, and Barbour said it would have been nearly impossible for Ameen to complete the 600-mile trip between Turkey and Rawah — while crossing war-torn Syria — and check in with refugee officials on the dates bracketing the fatal shooting.

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Many prison systems prohibit any internet activity other than email, and some states ban inmates But first we had to convince prison officials we’d developed a safe and secure platform that could let “ And they ’ re giving kickbacks to government for monopoly contracts to financially exploit people in

Eyewitnesses in Turkey said Ameen never left the country. Defense attorneys have also cited evidence that the sole eyewitness linking Ameen to the crime suffers from a serious mental illness.

Extradition documents filed by prosecutors included a screenshot of a Twitter post that appears to confess to and celebrate the murder of the police officer, Ihsan Abdulhafiz Jasim. It included a photo of a group of young men, some holding rifles. But missing was the date of the posting, any other posts from the account and a Facebook post it linked to.

All of this information could be critical to Ameen’s defense, but in discussions last spring, Twitter and Facebook’s legal counsel refused to provide content from the suspended accounts to his attorneys. Citing the Stored Communications Act, the companies said they would release only limited data, such as where the accounts were created.

The only way to access all of the information, Barbour said, would be to receive authorization from the account holder — in this case, the Islamic State group.

“There’s not a good path for defense counsel,” she said. “And here, we’re not talking about a U.S. person with privacy rights, right? We’re talking about ISIS. ISIS posted a murder on Twitter, and we’re the defense trying to get at it, and yet the Stored Communications Act, and the social media companies, are not giving it to us.”

Defense attorneys across California are encountering similar barriers.

Last year in Santa Clara County, defense attorneys in an attempted burglary case sought posts and private messages from users of the Nextdoor social network. A crucial issue in the case was whether the defendant had the intent to steal, and prosecutors argued the defendant waited for the homeowner to leave the house before attempting a break-in. However, a neighbor on Nextdoor posted that their surveillance video showed the suspect a half-mile away at the time the homeowner left.

Nextdoor successfully quashed the subpoena.

In another case, a defendant charged with shooting at an SUV said the alleged victim used Instagram to send him “harassing messages and threats that left the defendant in fear for his life.”

Instagram moved to quash the subpoena, and the judge complied.

In San Francisco, Lee Sullivan was one of three people charged with murder in a 2013 drive-by shooting, in which a co-defendant admitted to being one of two people who fired the fatal shots. In a rare move, the trial judge granted Sullivan’s request to subpoena Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for private user communications to test the credibility of the only witness who placed him in the car.

The companies appealed.

While waiting in jail, Sullivan put off his trial more than five years as the battle with the social networks trudged through California’s court system.

“It’s clearly a strategy for Facebook and Twitter,” said Bicka Barlow, one of Sullivan’s attorneys. “Those two entities, their whole game is to litigate, litigate, litigate; throw everything they can at the court.”

Facebook and Twitter attorneys argued in a petition to the California Supreme Court last summer that the ordered disclosure forced them to choose between violating federal law or a court order.

The high court effectively upheld the trial judge’s ruling, but the companies didn’t budge on releasing the records. On July 26, Judge Crompton held Facebook and Twitter in contempt of court, and he imposed the stiffest penalty allowed by law: a $1,000 fine for each company.

The tech companies have indicated in a motion that they intend to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

Giovanna Falbo, a spokeswoman for Twitter, said the company has taken a stand against the state court’s order in this case “because we believe that it violates the federal Stored Communications Act and undermines a key purpose of that law — to protect individuals’ privacy rights in electronic communications.”

Facebook officials declined to comment for this story.

Absent the evidence, Sullivan was convicted of murder. He is expected to be sentenced to prison Jan. 27.

Andrew Crocker, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-privacy-rights group based in San Francisco, said he’s sympathetic to both sides in these cases.

“It is a conundrum, because these are really important privacy protections,” he said. “Warrants have all this history of case law around them, and they’re supposed to protect privacy, and a judge is supposed to only authorize them in given circumstances, and we just don’t have that for the defense.”

But in recent months, a growing number of critics have challenged the social networks’ blockade of records.

Last year, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan filed a surprise argument that largely sided with the defense regarding the Stored Communications Act.

The defendant, Lance Touchstone, asked for a subpoena for an alleged shooting victim’s private Facebook messages. As with Sullivan’s case, the trial court allowed it and Facebook appealed. The social network said prosecutors should obtain these records on behalf of the defense, prompting Stephan to argue that the Stored Communications Act doesn’t apply to Facebook.

“If it does not apply ... Touchstone can subpoena the records he seeks,” Stephan’s motion said.

The case is now pending in the California Supreme Court.

Regardless of the result though, it’s unlikely to affect Ameen’s case.

Within months, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund F. Brennan will decide whether he agrees there is enough probable cause to extradite Ameen to Iraq. The final decision will rest in the hands of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Ameen’s attorneys have given up on discussions with Facebook and Twitter, opting not to continue litigating requests for information.

“Considering everything else we’ve got going in this case, it just didn’t seem like a good use of time to pick that fight with them,” Barbour said, adding that they’re now looking to open-source information to research the accounts. “I would love to have it, and I have no doubt that if the government wanted to get it they could get it. ... And we can’t. We tried.”

Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meganrcassidy

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