NY: Grant of a SW is not appealable before execution

A court order approving a search warrant for Facebook records is not appealable under New York law. The court rejects that the SCA is more like a subpoena than a search warrant, and the rule has been long standing in the state that grant of a search warrant isn’t appealable before execution. The issue implicates separation of powers, and the court, while tempted to resolve the issues presented, declines for now. In the Matter of 381 Search Warrants Directed to Facebook, Inc., 2017 NY Slip Op 02586, 2017 N.Y. LEXIS 767 (April 4, 2017) (over a spirited dissent):

This case undoubtedly implicates novel and important substantive issues regarding the constitutional rights of privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and the parameters of a federal statute establishing methods by which the government may obtain certain types of information. Nevertheless, while it may be tempting for this Court to address those issues, we must — in this case as in every other case — first ascertain whether we possess the necessary jurisdiction to do so under our own constitution and statutes. This presents equally important issues regarding the separation of powers among our three branches of government. With these principles in mind, because the orders resolving Facebook’s motions relate to warrants issued in a criminal proceeding, and the Criminal Procedure Law does not authorize an appeal from either order, we are constrained by law to affirm the Appellate Division order dismissing Facebook’s appeals to that Court.

Consequently, we have held for decades that “no appeal lies from [an] order denying … [an] application to vacate a search warrant … as this is an order in a criminal [case], [and] an appeal from [such an order] is not provided for” by statute (Matter of Police Benevolent Assn. of N.Y. State Police v Gagliardi, 9 NY2d 803, 803-804 [1961] [emphasis added]; see also Matter of Abe A., 56 NY2d 288, 293 [1982]). By contrast, a motion to quash a subpoena issued prior to the commencement of a criminal action, even if related to a criminal investigation, “is civil by nature” (Matter of Abrams [John Anonymous], 62 NY2d 183, 192 [1984]; see Matter of Newsday, Inc., 3 NY3d 651, 652 [2004]; People v Santos, 64 NY2d 702, 704 [1984]). Thus, an order resolving a motion to quash such a subpoena is a final and appealable order in a special proceeding that is “not subject to the rule restricting direct appellate review of orders in criminal proceedings” (Matter of Abrams, 62 NY2d at 192; see Matter of Newsday, 3 NY3d at 651 n).

In the instant matter, Facebook concedes that an order addressing a motion to quash a warrant is not appealable, but Facebook contends — and the dissent agrees — that, despite being denominated as “warrants,” SCA warrants are more analogous to subpoenas than to traditional search warrants involving tangible property because they compel third parties to disclose digital data. Thus, Facebook and the dissent urge us to treat Supreme Court’s first order denying its motion to quash the warrants as an appealable order denying a motion to quash subpoenas. This argument is unpersuasive.

It is true that the method of compliance with an SCA warrant has some characteristics that resemble a response to a subpoena. Most prominently, an SCA warrant compels a third party — here, Facebook — to compile and turn over digital data under its control, and the presence of a law enforcement officer is not required for service or execution of the warrant (see 18 USC § 2703[g]). A traditional search warrant, by comparison, authorizes law enforcement to enter, search, and seize property (see CPL 690.05[2]). These differences in execution, however, can be easily explained by the nature of the material sought. The service provider is more likely to be better equipped to access and conduct a search of its own digital information than law enforcement personnel (see generally United States v Bach, 310 F3d 1063, 1067 [8th Cir 2002]), and the data may be stored in different locations. Thus, the framework of execution for SCA warrants ensures efficiency and minimizes intrusion into the provider’s business while promoting and protecting legitimate law enforcement interests in criminal investigation. Despite the minor similarities between SCA warrants and subpoenas, in this post-digital world, we are not convinced that SCA warrants — which are required under the statute to obtain certain content-based information that cannot be obtained with a subpoena due to heightened privacy interests in electronic communications (see 18USC § 2703[a], [b][1][A]; S REP 99-541, 1986 US Code Cong & Admin News at 3559) — should nevertheless be treated as subpoenas.

Initially, the SCA plainly distinguishes between subpoenas and warrants, and there is no indication that Congress intended for SCA warrants to be treated as subpoenas. Indeed, to so hold, would be to ignore the plain language of the SCA in contravention of the rules of statutory interpretation (see People v Jones, 26 NY3d 730, 733 [2016]; Matter of DaimlerChrysler Corp. v Spitzer, 7 NY3d 653, 660 [2006]). As the Second Circuit recently explained,

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To the extent Facebook and the dissent argue that SCA warrants will escape judicial review if orders relating to motions to quash such warrants are deemed not appealable, that argument is also flawed. By its very nature, a warrant is subject to judicial review because it cannot be issued unless a neutral magistrate makes a finding of probable cause and particularity (see US Const, 4th Amend; NY Const art I, § 12). In addition, there are avenues of relief available to those subjects of SCA warrants who are ultimately prosecuted and who may, therefore, challenge the validity of the warrant on statutory or constitutional grounds, as well as potential civil remedies for those who are not formally accused (see generally 18 USC § 2707; 42 USC § 1983; Bivens v Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bur. of Narcotics, 456 F2d 1339, 1347 [2d Cir 1972]).

While Facebook’s concerns, as a third party, about overbroad SCA warrants may not be baseless, we are mindful that there are counterbalancing concerns that militate against authorizing appellate review of warrants issued in connection with criminal prosecutions outside of the review that may be sought by a criminal defendant following conviction. For example, we have cautioned that we must abide by the statutory authorizations for appeals in criminal cases in order to “limit appellate proliferation in criminal matters, … [because] [l]itigation may be compounded unduly by protracted and multifarious appeals and collateral proceedings frustrating the speedy resolution of disputes” (Matter of State of New York v King, 36 NY2d 59, 63 [1975]). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has recognized this very same concern for limiting appeals in criminal actions in the interest of expedient justice (see Ryan, 402 US at 532). Any debates about the balancing of such concerns is beside the point, because the weighing of these policy considerations is not ultimately within our province.

“That the Legislature has not authorized an appeal from an order in a criminal proceeding is conclusive; and ‘any arguments for a change in the practice, however persuasive, must be addressed to the legislature'” (Matter of Santangello, 38 NY2d at 539-540, quoting Cohen and Karger, Powers of the New York Court of Appeals, § 188, at 707). We “may ‘not resort to interpretative contrivances to broaden the scope and application’ of unambiguous statutes to ‘create a right to appeal out of thin air’ in order to ‘fill the … void, without trespassing on the Legislature’s domain and undermining the structure of article 450 of the CPL'” (People v Stevens, 91 NY2d 270, 279 [1998], quoting Laing, 79 NY2d at 170-171, 172; see Hernandez, 98 NY2d at 10). Until such time as the legislature may deem it appropriate to provide statutory authorization for appellate review, we have every faith in the competence and efficacy of our trial courts to resolve any motions properly brought by providers under the SCA in state courts.

Inasmuch as there is no statutory predicate for Facebook’s appeal from the order denying its motion to quash the SCA warrants that were issued in a criminal proceeding (see CPL art 450; CPL 470.60), nor any other legal basis for such appeal, we must affirm the Appellate Division’s dismissal of Facebook’s appeal insofar as taken from that order. Supreme Court’s order denying Facebook’s motion to compel disclosure of the affidavit is, likewise, not appealable, although Facebook may explore other procedural avenues to raise its claim (see Matter of Newsday, 3 NY3d at 652).

In light of our holding, we have no occasion to consider, and therefore do not pass on, the merits of the parties’ arguments regarding Facebook’s standing to assert Fourth Amendment claims on behalf of its users, whether an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her electronic communications, the constitutionality of the warrants at issue, or the propriety of the District Attorney’s refusal to release the supporting affidavit. Nor do we pass on the question of whether 18 USC § 2703 (d) authorizes a motion to quash an SCA warrant in the first instance. Due to the absence of jurisdiction for Facebook’s appeal to either this Court or the Appellate Division, these issues remain open.

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