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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Friday, January 7, 2011

Email Snooping by Spouse Results in Felony Criminal Charges

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper has elected to prosecute a Rochester Hills man for accessing his wife’s email account. The emails were accessed from a computer that the husband purchased for family use.

The criminalization of conduct involving computers and privacy has had federal and state law components. For example, in the federal realm, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act was initially passed to proscribe electronic eavesdropping and was significantly expanded in 1986 from traditional “wired” forms of electronic communication, to include all forms of digital electronic communication.

A few years earlier, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act outlawed electronic espionage. The federal computer crime scheme also features several “technology-neutral” provisions allowing prosecution for a variety of criminal acts involving a computer.

By creating a statutory right to privacy in Internet communications, the federal law creates an expectation of privacy in our digital transmissions and provides a tool for selective prosecution.

But does that expectation of privacy extend to a marital home? To the family computer?

A Rochester Hills woman, Clara Walker, is the complaining witness in the Oakland County case against her third (former) husband, Leon Walker. The husband purchased a family computer and set-up a gmail account for his wife. Shortly thereafter, suspecting his wife was conducting an affair with her second husband, Mr. Walker accessed his spouse’s gmail account to get the proof.

Apparently, his suspicions were well-founded as the couple was divorced last year.

The price of this confirmation, however, was high. Walker has been charged with unauthorized access to a computer; a five-year felony charge due to Walker's circumstances. The case, charged early last year, has kicked around the 51st District Court and the Oakland County Circuit Court since March, surviving the defendant's motion to dismiss.  Trial has been scheduled for Valentines Day.

The unauthorized computer access provisions of the Michigan Penal Code under which Walker has been charged are part of a 1979 statute designed to combat identity theft and computer hacking.  The provisions in the act create a presumption that access to another person’s computer file or digitized data was unauthorized. Various access or password-related exceptions are available to rebut the statutory presumption.

Two prior convictions, or an amount involved in the crime between $1000 but less than $20,000, elevates this computer crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.  Cooper has received criticism for charging an individual for alleged conduct which was resolved in family court. As she'll tell you; "happens all the time."

The case recently began receiving national attention when Walker, formerly an IT professional for Oakland County, cast Attorney Ray Cassarr aside in favor of "Feiger Law".  Figures.

Mr. Walker’s trial, over which Oakland Circuit Judge Martha Anderson will preside, should present some interesting evidence. The private family circumstances leading to the Walker's divorce proceedings may be deemed relevant to the criminal case.  Also, given the way the statute is worded, some interesting defenses can be presented to a jury. Among them, the defense counsel could focus the jury on whether a spouse’s separate email account on a family computer is private and whether there is an expectation of privacy in such an account when your husband has the password.

Any conviction will most likely be appealed.  We here at the Law Blogger will keep an eye on this one for you.  Expect updates.

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