If a judge signs a search warrant, a police officer will have the legal right to search a specific space for specific objects or materials. The classic scenario that you may think of is a warrant that allows your home to be searched for evidence relating to a crime.
Judges will only sign off on search warrants if there is probable cause for the police to believe that a specific object relevant to a crime is located in a specific location. All of this must be detailed in the warrant.
How Can the Police Access your Emails?
What about emails? Seeking out relevant information that is believed to be located in a person’s email account works differently. The police can contact the internet service provider (such as Google, Yahoo, etc.) who provide you with an email account to get access to that information.
While a warrant is not always required, there are certain instances when the police will still need a warrant in order to access another person’s email:
- The email is in transit;
- The e-mail is only stored on a person’s home computer; or
- The e-mail is stored in a remote location, is unopened and is under 180 days old.
However, your older emails that are not protected can still be inaccessible. If they attempt to access your email through your computer or cell phone, then they would need a warrant to take your device or use your device without your permission.
Are there Any Laws that Protect Your Email Privacy?
Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), police can access emails without a warrant if the emails are stored in the cloud and at least 180 days old. However, this law is outdated and lawmakers are attempting to pass the E-mail Privacy Act. This would update the ECPA by requiring warrants for all email searches. At the moment, in July 2018, the ECPA has yet to pass.
E-mails that are in remote storage and opened or older than 180 days do not require a warrant. Instead, the police only need to obtain an administrative subpoena. Administrative subpoenas are issued by federal agencies without any approval by a judge, so they are much easier to obtain.
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What if My Emails Were Stored at My Work Computer?
You generally have a lower expectation of privacy in the workplace. If the police are attempting to search emails that are kept on your employer’s server, then your employer can allow them to do so without your permission. This is because the e-mail and server belongs to your employer. However, your state may have laws about workplace searches that could limit your employer’s rights.
Additionally, if your employer granted you any rights in your contract over emails you compose on the job then they may need to notify you before turning the emails over to the police. Regardless of this keep in mind that your employer generally can monitor and disclose your company emails.
If you use your personal email at your work computer, then it is still possible for them to access your private email. Make sure you do not store private passwords on your work computer, as your employer has every right to allow the police to access your work computer and cell phone.
Keeping your work and personal life private is good for a work-life balance as well as protecting your privacy.
Do I Need to Contact an Attorney If I Feel That a Search of My Emails Was Illegal?
If you feel like your rights have been violated after your email has been searched, then you should consult with a criminal defense attorney. An attorney can analyze your case and determine whether the police followed the proper procedure in conducting an email search.
If the attorney believes that proper procedure was not followed of that any of your rights were violated, they can argue that the evidence uncovered during the unlawful search cannot be used and should be deemed inadmissible.