Federal Court: E-Mail Entitled To Fourth Amendment Protection
In what could turn out to be a landmark case, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that email held on an ISP server is subject to the protections of the Fourth Amendment:
In a landmark decision issued today in the criminal appeal of U.S. v. Warshak, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the government must have a search warrant before it can secretly seize and search emails stored by email service providers. Closely tracking arguments made by EFF in its amicus brief, the court found that email users have the same reasonable expectation of privacy in their stored email as they do in their phone calls and postal mail.
EFF filed a similar amicus brief with the 6th Circuit in 2006 in a civil suit brought by criminal defendant Warshak against the government for its warrantless seizure of his emails. There, the 6th Circuit agreed with EFF that email users have a Fourth Amendment-protected expectation of privacy in the email they store with their email providers, though that decision was later vacated on procedural grounds. Warshak’s appeal of his criminal conviction has brought the issue back to the Sixth Circuit, and once again the court has agreed with EFF and held that email users have a Fourth Amendment-protected reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of their email accounts.
From the decision:
Email is the technological scion of tangible mail, and it plays an indispensable part in the Information Age. Over the last decade, email has become “so pervasive that some persons may consider [it] to be [an] essential means or necessary instrument for self-expression, even self-identification.” Quon, 130 S. Ct. at 2630. It follows that email requires strong protection under the Fourth Amendment; otherwise, the Fourth Amendment would prove an ineffective guardian of private communication, an essential purpose it has long been recognized to serve. See U.S. Dist. Court, 407 U.S. at 313; United States v. Waller, 581 F.2d 585, 587 (6th Cir. 1978) (noting the Fourth Amendment’s role in protecting “private communications”). As some forms of communication begin to diminish, the Fourth Amendment must recognize and protect nascent ones that arise. See Warshak I, 490 F.3d at 473 (“It goes without saying that like the telephone earlier in our history, e-mail is an ever-increasing mode of private communication, and protecting shared communications through this medium is as important to Fourth Amendment principles today as protecting telephone conversations has been in the past.”).
If we accept that an email is analogous to a letter or a phone call, it is manifest that agents of the government cannot compel a commercial ISP to turn over the contents of an email without triggering the Fourth Amendment. An ISP is the intermediary that makes email communication possible. Emails must pass through an ISP’s servers to reach their intended recipient. Thus, the ISP is the functional equivalent of a post office or a telephone company. As we have discussed above, the police may not storm the post office and intercept a letter, and they are likewise forbidden from using the phone system to make a clandestine recording of a telephone call—unless they get a warrant, that is. See Jacobsen, 466 U.S. at 114; Katz, 389 U.S. at 353. It only stands to reason that, if government agents compel an ISP to surrender the contents of a subscriber’s emails, those agents have thereby conducted a Fourth Amendment search, which necessitates compliance with the warrant requirement absent some exception.
Given the fundamental similarities between email and traditional forms of communication [like postal mail and telephone calls], it would defy common sense to afford emails lesser Fourth Amendment protection…. It follows that email requires strong protection under the Fourth Amendment; otherwise the Fourth Amendment would prove an ineffective guardian of private communication, an essential purpose it has long been recognized to serve…. [T]he police may not storm the post office and intercept a letter, and they are likewise forbidden from using the phone system to make a clandestine recording of a telephone call–unless they get a warrant, that is. It only stands to reason that, if government agents compel an ISP to surrender the contents of a subscriber’s emails, those agents have thereby conducted a Fourth Amendment search, which necessitates compliance with the warrant requirement….
In the case at hand, which involved a criminal fraud prosecution of the owners of the company that sold the “male enhancement” produce Enzyte, the Court went on to find that the facts indicated that a good faith exception existed to the failure to obtain a warrant for the search at issue. As a result, the criminal convictions were sustained. Nonetheless, the Court’s finding that the Fourth Amendment’s protections extend to email kept on a third-party server stands and given the prevalence of web-based email today, it’s an important one as well. Conceptually, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why an email provider like, say, Google, should be treated any differently than a delivery service or a post office. The expectations of privacy of the average citizen are similar, and the fact that someone chooses to store email on a web server rather than downloading it doesn’t strike me as a relevant distinction for 4th Amendment purposes. Besides, the idea that the Federal Government would be able to access electronic mail without any need for a showing of probable cause that a crime has been committed strikes me as so offensive to American concepts of liberty that the outcome here seems rather self-evident.
But, of course, nothing in the law is self-evident. This holding only applies in the Sixth Circuit for the moment and it will be up to other courts across the country to apply the holding. Hopefully, they’ll do the right thing.
You can read the full opinion here, but be warned that it’s long (98 pages) and much of it deals with issues unrelated to the Fourth Amendment ruling.