Monday, April 11, 2016
Fifth Circuit Lets State AG Subpeona, Civil and Criminal Threats Against Google Stand
The Fifth Circuit ruled on Friday in Google v. Hood that a federal district court's injunction against Mississippi Attorney General James M. Hood III jumped the gun, and struck it. The ruling means that AG Hood's subpoena to Google remains live, and that he is not enjoined from bringing civil and criminal action against the web giant.
The case arose when AG Hood and certain other state AGs started expressing concerns that search engines weren't doing enough to stop copyright infringement, prescription drug and counterfeit product sales, and other "illegal and harmful" activity on the internet. Hood wrote to Google, and after some back-and-forth, issued a wide-ranging administrative subpoena, stating that there were "reasonable grounds to believe that Google Inc. may have violated . . . the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act."
Google sued in federal court, alleging that Hood's investigation violated Google's immunity under the Communications Decency Act, the Fourth Amendment, and the First Amendment rights of Google and its users, and seeking an injunction. The district court preliminarily enjoined Hood from enforcing the administrative subpoena and "bringing a civil or criminal charge against Google under Mississippi law for making accessible third-party content to Internet users (as threatened)."
Without touching the merits (even for likelihood of success, under the preliminary injunction standard), the Fifth Circuit struck the injunction. The court said that Google could bring the case in federal court, and that the district court did not err in not abstaining under Younger. But the court went on to say that Google's federal lawsuit was not ripe. That's because the subpoena was non-self-executing, and Hood had no independent authority to enforce it. (Instead, he has to enforce it through injunctive relief and a contempt motion in state court.) As to Hood's threats of civil or criminal enforcement: the court said that these were too "fuzzily defined," and that the court could not "on the present record predict what conduct Hood might one day try to prosecute under Mississippi law." In short: Google's case wasn't ripe, and the district court jumped the gun in issuing the injunction.
The ruling means that Hood can go ahead and try to enforce his subpoena in state court. He can also initiate any civil and criminal actions that Mississippi might allow. But when he does, he'll face Google's immunity and constitutional defenses in state court, and a likely second try in federal court.