FBI wants to probe Pittsburgh-area kids' social media to fight suit

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A daybreak, guns-drawn FBI raid on the wrong house has spurred a lawsuit in which the bureau's legal laser sights are now focused on the occupants' Facebook and Twitter accounts.

In an effort to challenge the damage claims of members of the family of Gary Adams, attorneys representing the FBI are probing the social networking activity of residents of his Bellevue home. Federal attorneys note that the family is claiming that its younger members have suffered "emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, damage to their reputation, psychological trauma," some of which could be reflected -- or debunked -- in social media postings.

Attorney Tim O'Brien, representing the Adams family, has countered in court filings that the FBI's demands are "fishing expedition-type requests."

In an interview, he called it "a case where a family has already suffered a tremendous intrusion on their personal lives when a SWAT team forced their way into their house.

"To turn around in discovery and basically inflict another invasion of their privacy is uncalled-for."

There's little doubt, though, that social media has become a favorite tool for attorneys seeking to undermine the damage claims of courthouse foes.

"You should exercise real caution when you're posting something that is personal, that is embarrassing, that you wouldn't want the whole world to know," said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has authored books about evidentiary rules. Regardless of your privacy settings, anything you post online "is ripe for the taking" should you become a litigant.

In March 2011, during an early morning roundup of accused members of the Manchester OGs street gang, the FBI led a 15-person raid on the Adams home. They were searching for a previous tenant of the home, Sondra Hunter, who moved out some time around 2009 -- before the Adams family moved in -- and relocated to Long Beach, Calif.

Ms. Hunter, 35 at the time of the raid, later pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute heroin and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Eleven residents sued numerous FBI agents, alleging that family members as young as 3 had laser gun sites pointed at them and were marched out to the cold sidewalk during a fruitless, hour-long search of the home.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer R. Andrade, who is defending the FBI, demanded any counseling and school records for the Adams youths and several members' social networking histories, user IDs and pass codes.

Ms. Andrade wrote in a Nov. 18 court filing that she wanted "certain pages from the Facebook account of Shaquel Adams" and "Twitter information from Savon Riley." Both are plaintiffs in the case. She wrote that Mr. O'Brien provided printouts of some Facebook accounts but had "failed to respond" to later requests.

Mr. O'Brien countered in a response filed Tuesday that none of the plaintiffs have alleged that they had "diagnosed physical or emotional injuries arising from the [raid]." They are instead claiming that the raid caused "immediate emotional distress" followed by "embarrassment and humiliation," he wrote.

He wrote that Savon Riley is now an adult but was a minor when the raid occurred. He wrote that he showed Ms. Andrade "literally hundreds of pages" of Facebook posts from Ms. Riley, in which there was no relevant information. "Defendants now want to undertake a fishing expedition into her Twitter account," he wrote.

"Any communications which deal directly with the event that occurred, certainly that's something that should be produced," Mr. O'Brien said. But Ms. Riley's Tweets "are just communications among teenagers. They're talking about the movies they like. They're talking about the boys they like. ... Enough is enough."

Shaquel Adams is an adult and parent of several of the plaintiffs, including Ms. Riley. Mr. O'Brien wrote that Ms. Andrade had seen Ms. Adams' Facebook posts, "out of which defendants identified several pages, the majority of which have little or nothing to do with this case."

The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI declined comment.

When plaintiffs are claiming psychological trauma, it's "fair game certainly to explore whether there are other causes of your emotional distress," using your online comments, said Steven Baicker-McKee, a Duquesne University law professor who specializes in civil procedure.

"Good plaintiffs' attorneys are reluctant to include an emotional distress claim because it can open the door to much more discovery and to evidence going before a jury," he said.

A judge, though, is likely to keep irrelevant Facebook and Twitter noodlings out of the court record, Mr. Baiker-McKee said. "You can't do discovery for the purposes of embarrassing the other side," he said.

U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer can decide the extent to which social media will become part of the Adams' case.

Facebook and Twitter are affecting everything from high-profile jury trials to low-level personal injury claims.

At the 2012 civil trial stemming from Jordan Miles' 2010 encounter with Pittsburgh police, the defendant officers challenged the Homewood man's image as a mild-mannered viola player by showing social media postings in which he flexed his muscles and called himself "Bulky J." The jury exonerated the three officers on one count and was hung on two, setting up a new trial in March.

Attorney J. Kerrington Lewis, who along with Mr. O'Brien, represented Mr. Miles, said that he recently represented a woman who suffered a back injury in a car accident. Although she recovered some damages, her case was complicated by photos she posted of herself on a roller coaster six weeks after the incident.

"The insurance company used to follow people around that were on workers' compensation and take movies of them playing softball," he said. "Now they don't even have to do that -- people publish it themselves."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.

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