Facebook, Inc. v. Wint, 010319 DCCA, 18-CO-958

Docket Nº:18-CO-958
Opinion Judge:McLeese, Associate Judge:
Party Name:Facebook, Inc., Appellant, v. Daron Wint, Appellee, and United States, Intervenor.
Attorney:Joshua S. Lipshutz, with whom Michael Holecek, of the bar of the State of California, pro hac vice, by special leave of court, Thomas Cochrane, of the bar of the State of California, pro hac vice, by special leave of court, John K. Roche, and Hayley L. Berlin were on the brief, for appellant. Mik...
Judge Panel:Before Glickman and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Farrell, Senior Judge.
Case Date:January 03, 2019
 
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Facebook, Inc., Appellant,

v.

Daron Wint, Appellee,

and

United States, Intervenor.

No. 18-CO-958

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

January 3, 2019

Argued October 9, 2018

On Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF1-7047-15) (Hon. Juliet J. McKenna, Trial Judge)

Joshua S. Lipshutz, with whom Michael Holecek, of the bar of the State of California, pro hac vice, by special leave of court, Thomas Cochrane, of the bar of the State of California, pro hac vice, by special leave of court, John K. Roche, and Hayley L. Berlin were on the brief, for appellant.

Mikel-Meredith Weidman, Public Defender Service, with whom Samia Fam, Jaclyn Frankfurt, and Alice Wang, Public Defender Service, were on the brief, for appellee.

Lauren R. Bates, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Jessie K. Liu, United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, Assistant United States Attorney, were on the brief, for intervenor.

Before Glickman and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Farrell, Senior Judge.

McLeese, Associate Judge:

Appellant Facebook, Inc. filed an emergency appeal from an order holding Facebook in civil contempt for refusing to comply with subpoenas served by appellee Daron Wint. We previously issued a brief order reversing the trial court's order, and we now publish this opinion to more fully explain our ruling.

I.

Mr. Wint was charged with murder in D.C. Superior Court. Before trial, he filed an ex parte motion asking the trial court to authorize defense counsel to serve subpoenas duces tecum on Facebook and a Facebook subsidiary for records, including the contents of communications, relating to certain accounts. Facebook objected, arguing that the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 2701-12 (West 2018), prohibits Facebook from disclosing such information in response to a criminal defendant's subpoena. The trial court approved the subpoena request and held Facebook in civil contempt for failing to comply.

II.

In the trial court, Mr. Wint argued that if the SCA were interpreted to preclude Facebook from complying with the subpoenas at issue, then the SCA would be unconstitutional. Mr. Wint has not renewed that argument in this court, however, and that argument therefore is not before us. Rather, Mr. Wint has argued in this court only that the SCA is properly interpreted to permit Facebook to comply. We decide that issue of statutory interpretation de novo. Richardson v. United States, 927 A.2d 1137, 1138 (D.C. 2007). We first look to see whether the statutory language at issue is "plain and admits of no more than one meaning." Peoples Drug Stores, Inc. v. District of Columbia, 470 A.2d 751, 753 (D.C. 1983) (en banc) (internal quotation marks omitted). We will give effect to the plain meaning of a statute "when the language is unambiguous and does not produce an absurd result." McNeely v. United States, 874 A.2d 371, 387 (D.C. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). "[W]e may also look to the legislative history to ensure that our interpretation is consistent with legislative intent." Thomas v. Buckley, 176 A.3d 1277, 1281 (D.C. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted).

A.

The SCA broadly prohibits providers from disclosing the contents of covered communications, stating that providers "shall not knowingly divulge to any person or entity the contents" of covered communications, except as provided. 18 U.S.C.A. § 2702(a)(1). The SCA contains nine enumerated exceptions to this prohibition. 18 U.S.C.A. § 2702(b)(1)-(9). Mr. Wint does not rely on any of those exceptions, and none of them applies in the present case. The plain text of the SCA thus appears to foreclose Facebook from complying with Mr. Wint's subpoenas.

The structure of the SCA points to the same conclusion. See generally, e.g., Frey v. United States, 137 A.3d 1000, 1004 (D.C. 2016) ("The [Supreme] Court frequently takes Congress's structural choices into consideration when interpreting statutory provisions.") (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). Section 2702, titled "Voluntary disclosure of customer communications or records," begins with a general prohibition against disclosure and provides a number of exceptions to the general prohibition. Section 2703, titled "Required disclosure of customer communications or records," sets out provisions pursuant to which governmental entities may compel disclosure from service providers. Read together, §§ 2702 and 2703 appear to comprehensively address the circumstances in which providers may disclose covered communications. Those circumstances do not include complying with criminal defendants' subpoenas.

Authority from other jurisdictions also favors a plain-language reading of the SCA. As far as we have determined, every court to consider the issue has concluded that the SCA's general prohibition on disclosure of the contents of covered communications applies to criminal defendants' subpoenas. United States v. Pierce, 785 F.3d 832, 842 (2d Cir. 2015) ("[T]he SCA provides that a governmental entity may require electronic communication service and remote computing service providers to disclose the contents of wire and electronic communication . . . . The SCA does not, on its face, permit a [criminal] defendant to obtain such information.")...

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