New York (CNN Business) — A Nebraska mother and her 18-year-old daughter are facing multiple charges in a case in which police obtained Facebook messages between them that authorities say show evidence of an illegal, self-managed medical abortion, as well as a plan to hide the remains.
Norfolk police began investigating Celeste Burgess and her mother, Jessica Burgess, in late April over concerns that Celeste had prematurely delivered a stillborn fetus, according to court documents.
After the initial allegation, law enforcement continued to investigate and obtained Facebook messages between Celeste and Jessica that appear to refer to abortion pills and the burning of “the evidence,” according to a copy of the conversation, now used in the case, contained in court documents. Police say that after exhuming the body of the fetus, it appeared to have “thermal injuries” that indicated it might have been burned after the termination of the pregnancy, according to court documents.
The case began before the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June. But it highlights an issue that digital privacy experts and some lawmakers have raised in recent months: that law enforcement in some states could use people’s personal data to enforce laws banning abortion. a practice that experts fear could increase after the Court’s ruling.
Experts have warned that prosecutors could, for example, serve search warrants on tech companies requesting location data, search history or call logs to help verify whether someone had an abortion or assisted in an abortion. The Burgess case shows how, in some cases, this has already happened to enforce existing laws.
Celeste, who was 17 at the time of the alleged incident, initially told investigators that she unexpectedly miscarried a 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 corroborate the date of her miscarriage, which police say led them to believe she might There will be more messages with details about the case and to request 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. CNN Business has also contacted the attorney representing Jessica Burgess.
Investigators served Meta, the parent company of Facebook, with a search warrant on June 7 for information on the accounts of Celeste and her mother. Facebook delivered the results of the search warrants in two days. The data provided by the company included more than 250 MB of data related to Celeste’s Facebook account and more than 50 MB of data about Jessica’s account, such as account information, images, audio and visual recordings, messages and other data, court documents show. The data included direct message exchanges between Celeste and Jessica two days before the “miscarriage/stillbirth” that suggested they had been given pills and had made plans about how to use them and what to do with “the evidence,” according to a signed affidavit. in support of a further search warrant by Detective Ben McBride of the Norfolk Police Investigative Unit.
In a statement Tuesday night on Twitter responding to a story about the Burgesses’ case, Meta spokesman Andy Stone said “nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, before the Supreme Court decision, it mentioned abortion. In a Tuesday’s post on your website, Titled “Correction of Record Regarding Meta’s Involvement in Nebraska Case,” Meta said “Court documents indicate that police were at the time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant. The court orders were accompanied of non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about it. The orders have now been lifted.”
The affidavit filed by McBride, the detective investigating the Burgesses, requesting Facebook’s approval of the search warrant stated that he would seek evidence related to “prohibited acts involving skeletal remains,” according to court documents obtained by CNN Business.
After the initial request to Facebook, prosecutors filed an additional search warrant on June 16 asking for proof of Internet searches or purchase of drugs used for abortion, among other things. Thirteen technological devices belonging to the Burgesses were also seized in response to that warrant, according to court documents.
In June, Celeste and Jessica were each charged with felony Prohibited Acts With Human Skeletal Remains, misdemeanor Concealing the Death of Another Person and misdemeanor False Information.
Both have pleaded not guilty to all three charges, with a trial date set for later this year. After police obtained data from the two search warrants, Jessica was also charged with two other felony counts, inducing an illegal abortion and performing an abortion as someone other than a licensed physician, to which she also pleaded not guilty. . A 22-year-old man was served a citation in connection with the case for allegedly concealing the death of another person, according to a May police news release. The man pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor, according to a report of the Lincoln Journal Star.
The case was previously reported by the Lincoln Journal Star, Forbes and Vice.
Nebraska currently prohibits abortions after 20 weeks, a law that has been in place since before the Roe vs. Wade. Celeste Burgess was about 28 weeks pregnant when her pregnancy ended, according to court documents.
Although the Burgesses were charged before Roe v. Wade was overturned, and the protection would not have applied to the actions of women after the termination of pregnancy, the case demonstrates how private information, such as direct messages on social media, could be used to enforce laws prohibiting the abortion. In 2018, a Mississippi woman was also charged with second-degree murder by a grand jury following a home miscarriage, after law enforcement flagged her internet search results as “buy abortion pills,” although the charges were eventually dropped.
Capt. Michael Bauer of the Norfolk Police Division said in an email to CNN Business that officers and detectives are not allowed to comment on cases outside of court.
Following the June Supreme Court ruling, the tech giants largely avoided saying how they would respond to law enforcement requests for data that could lead to persecution of abortion seekers or providers, even as some of those same companies pledged to help cover the travel expenses of their own employees who need to travel to obtain legal abortion services. When asked in June, companies including Amazon, Apple, Google, Lyft, Facebook parent Meta, Microsoft, Uber, Snap, TikTok and Twitter did not respond, declined to comment or did not respond directly to questions about how they would handle requests. of data aimed at those seeking an abortion.
In many cases, technology platforms have no choice but to respond to legal requests for information. Tech companies have generally said they comply with government data requests as long as they are consistent with existing laws. Now, the rollback of federal abortion protections, combined with the passage of new laws in numerous states restricting abortion, could make it harder for platforms to fight certain data demands related to abortion research.
In June, Meta responded to questions about law enforcement data requests by directing CNN Business to its transparency center, saying the company requires government requests to be consistent with the law and its own data policies. of the company. “If we determine that a government request is inconsistent with applicable law or our policies, we object and engage with the government agency to address any apparent deficiencies. If the request is illegal (for example, too broad or legally deficient in any meaning), we will challenge or reject the request,” the company says.
— CNN’s Brian Fung contributed to this report.