Federal Appeals Court: E-Mail Protected by Fourth Amendment

In what is being hailed a landmark decision, an appeals court ruled in a federal criminal case this week that e-mails are protected under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, a warrant is required before the government can access a defendant’s private e-mails.

The case involved a man who was accused of making false claims about male enhancement drugs and dietary supplements he was selling. He allegedly charged customers after advertising “free” products, resulting in fraud and money laundering charges.

During his trial, the man objected to the admission of 27,000 e-mails the government obtained from his Internet service provider, but the court overruled his objection and admitted them into evidence. He received a 25-year sentence and fines of over $45 million.

On appeal, the man argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the government seized his e-mails from his provider. The federal appeals court agreed, holding that e-mails should receive strong protection under the Fourth Amendment. The court ruled that the government violated the man’s rights in obtaining the e-mails without a warrant.

However, because the court found that the government acted in good faith, it refused to throw out the evidence. Still, the man’s sentence will be re-evaluated.

In a blog post, the Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF) called the decision groundbreaking, as it is the first federal appellate decision on e-mail privacy under the Fourth Amendment. The post went on to express hope that the ruling will encourage Congress to update the Stored Communications Act, which allows government officials to secretly obtain private e-mails without a warrant.

This is an exciting ruling, as it has the potential to protect the privacy of defendants accused of a crime.

Source: PC Magazine, “Feds Need Warrant to Read Emails, Appeals Court Says,” Chloe Albanesius, December 14, 2010