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Be Careful How You 'Snoop!'

Have you ever had the urge to read your spouse’s or significant other’s emails? If so, you are not alone. According to a study by Retrevo.com, 38 percent of those polled who were under 25 and in a dating relationship have “snooped” and read their partner’s email. Thirty-six percent of those in a committed relationship have done the same “snooping.” While many may consider this distasteful, it soon may also be considered illegal.

A Michigan man, who suspected his wife was cheating, could be sent to prison for snooping through her email.

Leon Walker, a 33-year-old computer technician, faces up to five years in prison when he goes to trial on April 11, 2011 in Michigan. He was charged with felony computer misuse in 2009, after his then wife, Clara Walker, discovered he had used her password and accessed her Gmail account. She then reported him to law enforcement authorities.

Leon, Clara’s third husband, denies that he “hacked” her account. He admits he accessed his wife's account because he suspected she was cheating on him. However, Leon indicated that Clara kept her password in a book next to the computer that they both shared. Leon also claims that Clara had previously given him the password to her Gmail account. When he checked her account, he said he discovered emails that indicated she was having an affair with her second husband, who had previously been arrested for beating Clara in front of her son from her first marriage.

Leon says he had concerns that Clara might be exposing their daughter to the abusive second husband as well as exposing her son to this man. Leon gave the emails to Clara's first husband, who then used the information to file a motion to obtain custody of the son.

Did Leon Walker commit felony computer misuse?
Leon Walker is being prosecuted under a Michigan law, which reads, in part: "A person shall not intentionally and without authorization or by exceeding valid authorization do any of the following . . . Access or cause access to be made to a computer program, computer, computer system or computer network to acquire, alter, damage delete or destroy property or otherwise use the service of a computer program, computer, computer system or computer network."

The word “email” does not appear in the statute. Thus, Leon Walker's defense attorney, Leon Weiss, believes prosecutors are misusing the law by charging his client under a statute that typically applies to identity theft or stealing intellectual property or trade secrets. Still, this case could set new boundaries in the area of privacy expectations between spouses.

Leon and Clara were still living together at the time he accessed her account, and it appears that Leon had routine access to the computer. These facts may help him and create enough gray area to suggest that Clara could not have an absolute expectation of privacy. Other legal analysts suggest that federal privacy laws do provide for an expectation of privacy unless one of the parties allows access with specific permission.

What is the Indiana law on email snooping?

Indiana has a law similar to the Michigan statute. The Indiana law states: “A person who knowingly or intentionally alters or damages a computer program or data, which comprises a part of a computer system or computer network without the consent of the owner of the computer system or computer network commits computer tampering, a Class D felony.”

However, there is a fundamental difference between the Indiana and Michigan statutes: the Indiana law lacks language prohibiting unauthorized “Access . . . to a computer network.” Thus, it might be more difficult to prosecute email snooping in Indiana. Nonetheless, this Michigan case should serve as a fair warning to divorcing spouses!

If you have questions about these issues, contact us.

  • Partner

    Jan concentrates her practice in the area of complex family law matters including dissolution of marriage, adoption, child custody, child support, prenuptial agreements and guardianship matters. Keefer also has significant ...

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