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Facebook warrant upheld despite close question on particularity

By: Laura Brown//June 24, 2024//

Facebook warrant upheld despite close question on particularity

By: Laura Brown//June 24, 2024//

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A Minneapolis man convicted of a gang-related killing argued that a warrant to search his Facebook accounts was unconstitutional. In State of Minnesota v. Angel Ignacio Sardina-Padilla, filed June 12, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that the warrant to search the man’s Facebook account was constitutional, but conceded that it posed a close question regarding the particularity requirement.

In June 2019, a passing motorist discovered a body lying off a dirt road in rural Washington County. The individual was determined to have died on May 24 or 25, 2019, and the cause of death was determined to be homicide.

Angel Sardina-Padilla became implicated in this murder due to his alleged participation in other crimes. Sardina-Padilla was linked to a violent street gang called Sureños 13, and it was alleged that Sardina-Padilla was selling methamphetamine. A warrant was issued, and tracking data showed that Sardina-Padilla was near the dirt road where the body was found.

Subsequently, a second warrant was issued. An individual was kidnapped, shot in the chest, and left for dead. This individual survived, and told police that Sardina-Padilla and another man kidnapped her from her home over an alleged to debt to “make an example of her.” Sardina-Padilla was arrested, and during a jail cell call, talked about “erasing his Facebook accounts.”

This warrant application covered two Facebook accounts associated with Sardina-Padilla, for all content from April 1, 2019, through June 24, 2019. It sought “permission to obtain the requested Facebook records as they may be evidence of the crimes of kidnapping and attempted murder.” Ultimately, Facebook content obtained pursuant to this warrant incriminated Sardina-Padilla in the murder, as there were messages from Sardilla-Padilla to others about the crime.

Sardina-Padilla moved to suppress evidence obtained pursuant to the warrant to search his Facebook accounts. The district court denied Sardina-Padilla’s motion to suppress. Still, it acknowledged that the warrant “came perilously close” to violating the particularity requirement. However, the district court did not see constitutional violations as the warrant contained a temporal limitation of three months.

In 2021, after 90 minutes of deliberation, a jury found Sardina-Padilla guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Sardina-Padilla argued that there was not a sufficient nexus between the crimes alleged and the contents of his Facebook account. Andrea Barts, assistant state public defender, contended that the application was vague because there was no reference to whom he was talking to when he made a comment about deleting Facebook. “Say I’m having a conversation with a colleague and that colleague says to me, ‘Do you want me to delete the email you sent me?’ and I say ‘no.’ Isn’t that a conversation about deleting an email? But I never told him to do it. I never said, ‘Delete the email.’”

“It is unfortunate that perhaps there was not a direct quotation of what was said,” Nicholas Hydukovich, assistant Washington County attorney, said. “The context really matters in terms of the deletion of data comment.”

“It was reasonable for the district court to infer that Sardina-Padilla discussed erasing his Facebook accounts shortly after his arrest because he was concerned about law enforcement finding incriminating evidence on those accounts,” Justice Karl Procaccini wrote for the court.

Sardina-Padilla also argued that the warrant was not sufficiently particular. “It was a general warrant because it allowed them to search all the contents for any crime,” Barts stated. “It wasn’t limited to a specific type of data or specific crime. It covered all content, they get to seize everything. The list is expansive. It includes friends, videos, photos, messages, communications.”

“They got 10,000 pages from Facebook,” Barts added.

“It is hard to imagine how law enforcement, in this circumstance, should have limited the warrant without the significant possibility of missing important evidence that appellant wanted to delete,” Hydukovich asserted.

Ultimately, the court sided with the county. “[B]oth the nature of the alleged crimes and the circumstances of the case reasonably prevented the investigators from giving a more precise description of the evidence sought,” Procaccini wrote.

“We recognize that the June warrant’s broad scope raises a close question,” Procaccini wrote. “But considering the circumstances of the case, the nature of the crimes under investigation, and whether the officers could have provided a more precise description of the evidence sought, we conclude that the June warrant was sufficiently particular.”

Still, the court expressed concerns about the warrant’s breadth regarding the Facebook account. “This case approaches the outer edge of the particularity requirement, and its outcome would likely differ under circumstances less favorable to the State,” Procaccini added.

“Given the troves of private information potentially available on an individual’s social media account, and a provider’s ability to cull selected data from that information, law enforcement officers should tailor their searches to the contours of their investigation whenever possible,” Procaccini instructed.


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