Pennsylvania Attorney General Drops Twitter Subpoena

An update on my post on Wednesday regarding the subpoena issued to Twitter by the Attorney General of Pennsylvania. Earlier today, the subpoena was withdrawn and the purpose behind it revealed:

Pennsylvania prosecutors are dropping their grand jury subpoena to Twitter demanding the identity of two account holders who used the microblogging service to criticize Attorney General Tom Corbett, a spokesman said Friday.

Corbett, the Republican candidate for governor, was seeking to unmask the account holders ahead of Friday’s sentencing of Brett Cott, whom Corbett targeted in a political corruption investigation.

Corbett wanted to know if Cott was the one anonymously disparaging Corbett and the ongoing probe, Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said in a telephone interview. Prosecutors believed that linking Cott to one of the Twitter accounts criticizing Corbett would show the defendant had a bad attitude that should earn him a higher sentence, Harley said.

Harley said they wanted to unmask the account holders “to show the court Cott was demonstrating a lack of contrition and remorse.”

On Friday, Cott was handed up to five years in prison for his role in the political corruption scandal known as Bonusgate. Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis said he did not consider any online criticism in his sentencing decision.


“It’s clear they were on a fishing expedition to see if these Twitter users were Cott,” Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview. “That’s not only an abuse of the grand jury process but a real affront to political speech rights … The government just can’t go on fishing expeditions like that to unmask critics because it might be helpful on sentencing.”

On some level it’s too bad that a Court did not rule on the legitimacy of these subpoenas, because we’re bound to see more efforts by law enforcement, as well as litigants in civil cases, to uncover the identity of online anonymous critics. It would be nice to have a court put a leash on overly aggressive prosecutors before the practice becomes so common that stopping it would be next to impossible.

In this particular case, while I can’t say that I’m familiar with Pennsylvania law in this area, it seems highly unlikely that any Court would have allowed Corbett to go after a Twitter user who happened to be critical of him just because he thought there was a possibility that it might be the Defendant. At least I hope it wouldn’t.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael says:

    IIRC, something similar happened to the author of during the SCO v. Novell lawsuit.