DA drops request for Twitter accounts related to San Francisco protest 

click to enlarge A screenshot of Lauren Smith's tweets archived on the website Topsy.com. Click on the photo to see larger view. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • A screenshot of Lauren Smith's tweets archived on the website Topsy.com. Click on the photo to see larger view.

Under pressure from First Amendment and privacy advocates, prosecutors from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office have dropped an effort to retrieve Twitter communications from two people charged in connection with a violent Oct. 6 demonstration.

Lauren Smith and Robert Donohoe were among the 19 people arrested and charged with misdemeanors after the protest. The accusations include inciting a riot, unlawful assembly, throwing paint and glass at banks and police, resisting arrest and assaulting cops.

Assistant District Attorney Laura Claster requested all tweets from a 10-month period, including photos and all Twitter mentions, and all the users followed by or following Smith (@laurenriot) and Donohoe (@robbiedonohoe).

In court filings, attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that the subpoenas were an overly broad “fishing expedition” that violated federal law and potentially “chilled” First Amendment rights to free speech.

Typically, such information is requested via a search warrant, which has to go before a judge, said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the foundation. Claster did not go before a judge and did not specify why she wanted the information.

“I have no idea why they issued these subpoenas,” Cardozo said of the District Attorney’s Office. “A subpoena is just plain not the way to get that info.”

Claster withdrew the subpoenas ahead of a hearing scheduled for today in which defense attorneys for Smith and Donohoe were to ask a judge to dismiss the charges.

A spokesman for District Attorney George Gascón confirmed the subpoena withdrawals, but would not say whether narrower subpoenas would be refiled or whether prosecutors would go before a judge to request a search warrant for the protesters’ communications.

Smith and Donohoe have both closed their Twitter accounts, but Smith briefly activated hers in December to ask followers to contact Gascón and demand dismissal of the case. In the months leading up to her arrest, she frequently tweeted from Occupy Oakland and other protests, and under her user information she had entered, “I’m not in black bloc I just smash a lot,” according to Twitter information archived at Topsy.com.

Twitter collects a variety of information from its users — including location, type of mobile device used and other pages visited in a Web browser — and states in its privacy policy that data might be shared to “comply with a law, regulation or legal request.”

In its annual Transparency Report, issued in July, the company said that from Jan. 1, 2012, to June 30 it had received 679 requests from American law enforcement alone seeking information from 948 users. Twitter complied with 75 percent of those requests. Worldwide, the numbers were 849 and 63 percent.

The 19 people charged in the Oct. 6 incident in San Francisco are next scheduled to appear in court Feb. 8.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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