A San Francisco judge found Facebook and Twitter in contempt Friday for refusing to turn over postings that might help the defense in a criminal trial.
Superior Court Judge Charles Crompton fined each company $1,000, the maximum allowed under the law. Facebook was fined $5 billion earlier this week by the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations. The company had $56 billion in revenue last year.
“Facebook and Twitter appear to be using 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,” Crompton wrote in his order.
Derrick Hunter and Lee Sullivan are on trial for murder and weapons and gang-related charges stemming from a 2013 drive-by shooting. Opening arguments were made on Tuesday.
In his order, Crompton said social media messages among the defendants, victims and others “played a central role” in the police investigation and would be a focus of the prosecution’s case. The defense was entitled to any postings that might help them, the judge said.
In an unprecedented move, the California Supreme Court last week allowed the defense to obtain the postings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, letting stand an earlier order by Crompton. Facebook owns Instagram.
In the past, only law enforcement could force social media to turn over private postings.
The order would allow Crompton to first review the postings in chambers to determine whether they should be turned over to the defense.
The companies, in a letter to the San Francisco-based Court of Appeal, said they would not comply because they believed they would be violating a federal law.
During a hearing Wednesday before Crompton, Joshua Lipshutz, representing Facebook and Twitter, called the fight for the postings “a good-faith disagreement over the requirements of federal law.”
Lipshutz indicated the companies would like the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether the federal Stored Communications Act allows the defense access to private postings in criminal trials.
If it doesn’t, the judge replied, it appears to be unconstitutional.
“I don’t think it will be any consolation to the defendants and their lawyers that you think you are vindicating federal rights,” the judge told him.
Lipshutz could not be reached for comment.
Bicka Barlow, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said, “We should all be concerned when powerful companies like Facebook argue that they are above the law.”
She declined to comment on how the companies’ refusals to produce the documents would affect the case.
The defendants have been in jail for six years.
The federal government began investigating Facebook last year after it was learned that Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining firm, gathered information on as many as 87 million Facebook users without their permission.
The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to file a complaint alleging that Facebook “repeatedly used deceptive disclosures and settings to undermine users’ privacy preferences.”