Nebraska Dean and Mother Face Charges of Accessing Their Facebook Messages in Abortion-Related Case

According to court documents, Norfolk police began investigating Celeste Burgess and her mother, Jessica Burgess, in late April following concerns that Celeste gave birth prematurely to a stillborn fetus. After the two were initially charged, law enforcement continued to investigate and obtained Facebook messages between Celeste and Jessica that appear to have burned abortion pills and “evidence,” according to a transcript of the conversation — which is now being used. The case is in court filings. After the fetus’s body was exhumed, police say it showed “thermal injuries” indicating it may have been burned after conception, court documents show.

The case started in the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade fell over In June. But it highlights a problem for digital privacy experts and some lawmakers Raises warnings about In recent months: Law enforcement in some states could use people’s personal data to enforce laws banning abortion, a practice experts worry will increase following the Supreme Court ruling. For example, prosecutors could issue search warrants to tech companies seeking location data, search history or call records to help confirm whether someone has performed or assisted in an abortion, experts have warned. The Burgess case shows how, in some cases, enforcement of existing laws can happen.

Celeste, who was 17 at the time of the alleged incident, initially told investigators that she had unexpectedly aborted the stillborn fetus and that she and her mother later buried the fetus, according to an affidavit in support of a search warrant. When interviewed by a police detective, she “scrolled through her messages on her Facebook Messenger account” in an attempt to reveal the date of the miscarriage, police said, leading them to believe and search for more messages with details about the case. A search warrant, according to court documents.

The public defender’s office representing Celeste Burgess, who is being tried as an adult, declined to comment. Bradley Ewald, an attorney representing Jessica Burgess, declined to comment.

Investigators worked Meta (FB), Facebook’s parent company, with a search warrant on June 7 for information related to the accounts of Celeste and her mother. Facebook reversed the results of the search warrants within two days. The data provided by the company includes 250 MB of data related to Celeste’s Facebook account and more than 50 MB of data such as account information, images, audio and video recordings, messages and other data. Court documents show. The data, which included direct message exchanges between Celeste and Jessica two days before the “miscarriage/delivery,” suggested they were getting the pills and making plans about how to use them and what to do with the “resources.” Affidavit in Support of Additional Search Warrant by Detective Ben McBride of the Norfolk Police Detective Division.
Responding to a story about Burgess’ case on Twitter Tuesday night, Meta spokesman Andy Stone said, “None of the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion.” A Post Tuesday On its website titled “Correcting the Record on META’s Involvement in Nebraska Case,” META said, “At the time, court documents indicated police were investigating allegations of illegal incineration of a dead infant. The warrants were accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them.” . Orders are now cancelled.”

According to court documents obtained by CNN Business, in an affidavit filed by McBride, the detective investigating Burgess, seeking approval of a search warrant for Facebook, he said he was seeking evidence related to “prohibited activities with skeletal remains.”

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After the initial request to Facebook, prosecutors filed an additional search warrant on June 16 that sought evidence of Internet searches or purchases of drugs used to induce abortions. Thirteen technological devices belonging to Burgess were also seized in response to that warrant, according to court documents.

In June, Celeste and Jessica were charged with one count of prohibited acts involving human remains, one misdemeanor count of concealing the death of another person, and one misdemeanor count of false information. All 3 have pleaded not guilty, and trials are set for later this year. After police obtained data from two search warrants, Jessica was charged with two additional felonies, inducing an illegal abortion and performing an abortion by someone other than a licensed physician, to which she also pleaded not guilty. A 22-year-old man was issued a citation for allegedly concealing the death of another person, according to a May police press release. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor Report From the Lincoln Journal Star.

The case was previously reported by the Lincoln Journal Star, Forbes and Vice.

Nebraska currently bans abortions after 20 weeks, a practice that has been in place since before Roe v. Wade was overturned. Celeste Burgess’ pregnancy ended when she was about 28 weeks pregnant, court documents allege.

Although Burgess was charged before Roe v. Wade was overturned — the protection does not apply to women’s actions following the end of a pregnancy — the case demonstrates how social media can be used to process private information, such as direct messages. Laws prohibiting abortion. In 2018, a Mississippi woman was indicted by a grand jury for second-degree murder after she lost a pregnancy at her home, and the charges were eventually dropped after law enforcement pointed to Internet search results such as “buy abortion pills.”

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Norfolk Police Department Capt. Michael Bauer told CNN Business in an email that officers and detectives are not allowed to comment on cases outside of court.

Following the Supreme Court’s June ruling, tech giants He avoided saying much How they respond to law enforcement requests for data that could lead to the prosecution of abortion seekers or providers — some of the same companies that have pledged to help cover travel expenses for their own employees who must travel to obtain legal abortion services. Companies including Amazon, Apple, Google, Lyft, Facebook-parent Meta, Microsoft, Uber, Snap, TikTok and Twitter did not respond to questions in June, declined to comment or did not respond directly to questions about how the data was handled. Solicitations aimed at abortion seekers.

In many cases, technology platforms have no choice but to respond to legal requests for information. Tech companies have widely said they will comply with government data requests as long as they are consistent with existing laws. Now, with many states passing new legislation restricting abortion and rolling back federal abortion protections, it may be difficult for sites to fight some data requests related to abortion investigations.

In June, Meta responded to questions about law enforcement requests for data by directing CNN Business to its Transparency Center, and said the company must comply with government requests law and the company’s own data policies. “If we determine that a government request is inconsistent with applicable law or our policies, we will withdraw and engage the government agency to address the apparent deficiencies. If the request is unlawful (for example, overbroad or otherwise legally deficient), we will challenge or deny the request,” the agency said. says

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–CNN’s Brian Fung contributed reporting.

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