Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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The Supreme Court reversed three rulings by the trial court in a pending criminal case in these consolidated appeals, holding that the trial court erred in barring public access to a pretrial bail hearing, by keeping certain motions and exhibits under seal, and by finding that the City of Newport News lacked standing to oppose any public access to sealed documents that the City had previously produced in response to a subpoena.The underlying case involved a murder indictment and ancillary charges against a Newport News police officer. Two newspaper publishers and a reporter filed an appeal challenging rulings barring access to the pretrial bail hearing and keeping motions and exhibits under seal. The City challenged the ruling that the City lacked standing to oppose public access to the sealed documents it produced in response to the subpoena. The Supreme Court reversed all three holdings, holding that the trial court erred as to all three rulings. View "Daily Press, LLC v. Commonwealth" on Justia Law

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Between 2018 and 2020, Electric Frontier Foundation, Inc. (EFF) moved to unseal affidavits filed in support of executed search warrants requested by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (the Sheriff) and issued under seal by the San Bernardino Superior Court between March 2017 and March 2018. EFF was a “non-profit civil liberties organization working to protect and promote fundamental liberties in the digital world.” According to EFF, cell-site simulators collected the digital data of innocent people. “EFF claims law enforcement authorities in San Bernardino County lead the state in the use of cell-site simulators. Because of its concerns about the use of cell-site simulators, EFF petitioned to unseal eight “search warrant packets” that contained warrants issued by the Superior Court between March 2017 and March 2018 that allowed the Sheriff to use cell-site simulators. The Sheriff and the San Bernardino County District Attorney (collectively, the County) did not object to the unsealing of one warrant packet (SBSW 18-0850), but opposed the unsealing of portions of the seven other warrant packets. Specifically, the County argued the returns to the executed search warrants and the so-called “Hobbs affidavits” in support of the warrants should have remained sealed indefinitely, because they contained sensitive information about confidential informants and “official information.” The trial court denied EFF’s motion and ordered the affidavits to remain sealed. EFF appealed. Finding no abuse of discretion, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court. View "Electronic Frontier Foundation, Inc. v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

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A DEA task force investigated Jacobs, a Kentucky drug dealer. Jacobs sold drugs to a couple who allegedly were “good friends” with the local Commonwealth Attorney (CA). After Jacobs' arrest on state drug-trafficking charges, the couple had extensive conversations with the CA. After one conversation, an assistant state prosecutor requested Jacobs’s cell phone records from the task force, alerting the DEA to the CA’s relationship with Jacobs’s customers. The CA became involved in the case in other ways, impeding Jacobs’ use as a cooperating witness in other federal investigations by opposing a bond reduction and refusing to seek a state search warrant for an unrelated case if the DEA agent from the Jacobs investigation was involved. The DEA began investigating the CA’s conduct, “Operation Speakeasy.” Evidence was presented to the U.S. Attorney, who refused to bring obstruction charges against the CA.A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552 request with the DEA, seeking any document related to the Jacobs investigation or Operation Speakeasy. The DEA denied that request, citing an exception for “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes,” disclosure of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the Enquirer’s suit. The documents “only minimally advance[d] a public interest in shedding light on the decision” to not prosecute the CA and “significant privacy interests outweigh[ed] the proffered public interest.” View "Cincinnati Enquirer v. Department of Justice" on Justia Law

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Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sections 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2). He appealed from the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence of a firearm seized from his “fanny pack,” a small bag strapped around his waist. Defendant argued that the officers (1) lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him as he was walking at a fairground in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and (2) exceeded the scope of any permissible stop and frisk by placing him in handcuffs and by ultimately searching the fanny pack.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the district court did not err in denying the suppression motion. The officers had reasonable suspicion to think that Defendant, a convicted felon and gang member who had posted a recent incriminating statement on social media and whose residence had been the target of recent shootings, was engaged in criminal activity and was armed and dangerous. The court further concluded that the officers did not exceed the scope of the brief detention and frisk by handcuffing Defendant and, after feeling a hard object in his fanny pack, by opening the pack and seizing the firearm. Those actions were justified to ensure the safety of both the officers and other people nearby. View "US v. Chandler Gist-Davis" on Justia Law

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Georgetown Law invited Yung to interview an alumnus. Yung thought his interviewer was rude. Georgetown rejected Yung's application. Yung launched a cyber-campaign, creating fake obituaries for the interviewer’s wife and son, social-media profiles and blogs in the interviewer's name, containing KKK content and bragging about child rape. A Google search of the interviewer’s name revealed thousands of similar posts. In reports to the Better Business Bureau, Yung accused the interviewer of sexually assaulting a female associate and berating prospective employees. Impersonating the interviewer’s wife, he published an online ad seeking a sex slave. The interviewer’s family got hundreds of phone calls from men seeking sex. Strange men went to the interviewer’s home. The interviewer hired cyber-investigators, who, working with the FBI, traced the harassment to Yung.Yung, charged with cyberstalking, 18 U.S.C. 2261A(2)(B) & 2261(b) unsuccessfully challenged the law as overbroad under the First Amendment. Yung was sentenced to prison, probation, and to pay restitution for the interviewer’s investigative costs ($70,000) and Georgetown’s security measures ($130,000). The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction. A narrow reading of the statute’s intent element is possible so it is not overbroad--limiting intent to harass to “criminal harassment, which is unprotected because it constitutes true threats or speech that is integral to proscribable criminal conduct.” The court vacated in part. Yung could not waive his claim that the restitution order exceeds the statute and Georgetown suffered no damage to any property right. View "United States v. Yung" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted some, but not all, of Relator's requested relief in his petition for a writ of mandamus ordering Donna Crawford, an inspector with the Trumbull Correctional Institution's office of institutional services, to produce public records that Relator had requested, holding that Relator was entitled to some of his requested relief.Relator, an inmate, sent public-records requests to Crawford, the prison's custodial of inmate-grievance records. Crawford sent some, but not all, of the requested documents. Relator then brought this action seeking a writ of mandamus and an award of statutory damages under Ohio Rev. Code 149.43(C)(2). The Supreme Court partially granted relief and awarded Relator $1,000 in statutory damages for Crawford's failure to respond fully to one request, holding that Relator met his burden to plead and prove facts showing that he requested a public record and that Crawford did not make the record available. View "State ex rel. Ware v. Crawford" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court denied Relator's request seeking a writ of mandamus ordering the public-records officer for the Ohio Adult Parole Authority (APA) to produce records that Relator claimed to have requested under Ohio's Public Records Act, Ohio Rev. Code 149.43, holding that Relator was not entitled to the writ.In his mandamus action, Relator alleged that he sent a public-records request to the APA's public-records officer seeking public records from the personnel files of six Ohio Parole Board members who were members of the panel for Relator's parole hearing and that the officer had not responded to his request. The Supreme Court denied mandamus relief, holding that because Relator failed to provide evidence to demonstrate that he delivered the alleged public-records request to the APA at all, Relator was not entitled to relief in mandamus. View "State ex rel. Griffin v. Doe" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court granted in part and denied in part the application of Charles Summers for court costs, attorney fees, and statutory damages following the Court's grant of a writ of mandamus ordering Respondents to produce documents to Summers, holding that Summers was entitled to an award of court costs.This case concerned Summers's request for public records relating to his son's criminal case. Summers sent the requests to Respondents - Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Matthew Fox and Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey. When court-ordered mediation resulted in Summers receiving some, but not all, of the documents that he had requested the Supreme Court granted his writ of mandamus in part and denied it in part. Summers then filed his petition for an award of court costs, statutory damages, and attorney fees. The Supreme Court held (1) Summers was entitled to court costs; (2) Summers's status as the prevailing party in his mandamus action did not entitle him to an award of attorney fees, nor was he entitled to an award of bad-faith attorney fees; and (3) Summers was not entitled to an award of statutory damages. View "State ex rel. Summers v. Fox" on Justia Law

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Former Georgia police sergeant Van Buren used his credentials on a patrol-car computer to access a law enforcement database to retrieve license plate information in exchange for money. His conduct violated a department policy against obtaining database information for non-law-enforcement purposes. The Eleventh Circuit upheld Van Buren's conviction for a felony violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA), which covers anyone who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access,” 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(2), defined to mean “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.”The Supreme Court reversed. An individual “exceeds authorized access” when he accesses a computer with authorization but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computer (files, folders, databases) that are off-limits to him. Van Buren “access[ed] a computer with authorization” and “obtain[ed] . . . information in the computer.” The phrase “is not entitled so to obtain” refers to information one is not allowed to obtain by using a computer that he is authorized to access.“Without authorization” protects computers themselves from outside hackers; the “exceeds authorized access” clause protects certain information within computers from "inside hackers." One either can or cannot access a computer system, and one either can or cannot access certain areas within the system. The Act’s precursor to the “exceeds authorized access” language covered any person who, “having accessed a computer with authorization, uses the opportunity such access provides for purposes to which such authorization does not extend.” Congress removed any reference to “purpose” in the CFAA. On the government’s reading, an employee who sends a personal e-mail or reads the news using a work computer may have violated the CFAA. View "Van Buren v. United States" on Justia Law

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Corley was convicted of three counts of sex trafficking of a minor. Corley subsequently sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests concerning his own case. The Department of Justice withheld 323 pages of responsive records, including “the names, descriptions and other personally identifiable information” of Corley’s victims, invoking FOIA Exemption 3, which authorizes withholding of certain materials “specifically exempted from disclosure by statute,” 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(3). The “statute” relied upon was the Child Victims’ and Child Witnesses’ Rights Act, which restricts disclosure of “information concerning a child [victim or witness],” 18 U.S.C. 3509(d)(1)(A)(i).The D.C. Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the government. The Child Victims’ Act qualifies as an Exemption 3 withholding statute and covers the records Corley seeks. The Act provides that “all employees of the Government” involved in a particular case “shall keep all documents that disclose the name or any other information concerning a child in a secure place” and disclose such documents “only to persons who, by reason of their participation in the proceeding, have reason to know such information.” Corley sought the documents not as a criminal defendant but rather as a member of the public. The protections apply even though the victims are no longer minors. View "Corley v. Department of Justice" on Justia Law