Are Social Media Messages Entitled to Fourth Amendment Protection?

A man charged with killing a Maryland resident contended that police violated his rights when they seized his Facebook account and searched his apartment.

by Kelsi Loos, The Frederick News-Post, Md. / March 22, 2017

(TNS) — A man charged with killing a Frederick County resident in an alleged MS-13 gang hit contended that police violated his rights when they seized his Facebook account and searched his apartment.

This month, Raul Ernesto Landaverde Giron joined co-defendants, other accused gang members. They asked the U.S. District Court of Maryland to disregard evidence collected from social media accounts, arguing that the Fourth Amendment protected the private communications against search and seizure.

Defense attorneys noted that the Maryland federal district court had not yet considered whether Facebook messages are protected under the law, but other federal courts had said private messages on the social media site are entitled to Fourth Amendment protection.

The attorneys also contended that police weren’t specific enough about what they intended to seize when they applied for a search warrant of the accounts.

Lardaverde Giron, along with Aldair Garcia Miranda and Jose Javier Salgado Machado, were accused of murdering Merlin Edjardo Alvarez Garcia in the woods between Greenwall Place and Hoke Place near Hillcrest in Frederick on Nov. 30, 2013.

Alvarez Garcia had fled El Salvador for Frederick to escape an MS-13 order to kill him.

Investigators intercepted messages between Landaverde Giron and Selvin Raymundo Salazar, alleged leader of the Normandie clique of MS-13. The clique operated largely in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Federal prosecutors said the two discussed gang activities on Facebook including disciplining other gang members. Defenders, however, interpreted the statement in question, “tiene que ir a regañar los chapones,” to refer to having to yell at legitimate workers. There was debate about whether the word “chapones” referred to gang members or to “guys” or “people.”

The meaning of other Spanish words in Facebook posts were also scrutinized for possible gang references.

U.S. attorneys filed a motion March 15 opposing the move to keep the evidence out of the trial. They said a search warrant to access the Facebook messages was supported by probable cause to believe the accounts would contain evidence of crimes.

The Homeland Security Investigations special agent who applied for the warrant, U.S attorneys noted, was familiar with MS-13 and knew members to use Facebook to discuss gang business with associates in the U.S., El Salvador and other Central American countries. They also use the service to communicate with extortion victims, according to the government filing.

An unnamed defendant cooperating with officials also indicated there may be evidence related to MS-13 crimes on the accounts.

Landaverde Giron has also filed motions to keep other evidence out of the courtroom.

He joined another motion by an alleged associate MS-13 member saying that police did not have probable cause to arrest him.

In January, his attorney moved to block evidence collected from Landaverde Giron’s apartment, clothing and notes.

The woman whose husband rented the room to Landaverde Giron and his girlfriend signed consent statements before the June 2015 search.

However, his attorney argued that since his client did not give permission, the search was illegal.

Garcia Miranda pleaded guilty Nov. 20, 2015, to racketeering conspiracy, including murder and attempted murder and using, carrying, brandishing and discharging a firearm in a crime of violence.

He faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison because the racketeering conspiracy involved a murder.

Salgado Machado was not expected to stand trial in the near future, according to a U.S. attorney filing on Feb. 21, because he was incarcerated in El Salvador.

©2017 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.