Is snooping in your spouse’s e-mail a crime?
A Michigan man who accessed his wife’s e-mail account while she was allegedly carrying on an affair faces up to five years in prison when he goes on trial Feb. 7 on a charge he violated a state law typically used against hackers intent on making money or mayhem.
The question for the judge or jurors who will hear the case isn’t whether Clara Walker gave Leon Walker, 33, permission to inspect her Google e-mail; he admits she didn’t know what he was up to until her e-mail messages became an issue in their divorce and child custody battle.
But Leon Walker claims that he had every right to poke around in the computer because he was concerned that his wife’s lover — the second of her two former husbands — might be abusive to her around their young children. Walker also contends that he had the right to go on the computer because he bought it, it was in his home, and she left the password lying around.
“She kept a copy of every password she had next to her computer in her address book,” Walker told NBC News in a report that aired Tuesday on TODAY. “I felt that with the risk to my daughter and to my stepson, I had an obligation to check. I had no choice.”
However, prosecutors in Michigan say Walker did have a choice, and made a bad one. They have charged him with unauthorized access to a computer in order to “acquire, alter, damage, delete or destroy property.”
Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor Sydney Turner said the charge is justified. But because the statute doesn’t specifically address the issue of a computer that is arguably a jointly owned marital asset, Walker’s lawyer, Leon Weiss, is expected to argue that the statute should not be applied to domestic snooping.
If the prosecution is successful, the repercussions for the criminal justice system could be profound. “If there’s going to be a concerted effort in the future to prosecute everybody who looks at somebody else’s e-mail under their roof, they had better build a bunch more courthouses because we don’t have enough courthouses,” Weiss said.
Privacy law writer Frederick Lane told the Detroit Free Press that the law typically is used to prosecute identity theft and stealing trade secrets. He says he questions whether a wife can expect privacy on a computer she shares with her husband.
Opening the floodgates?
The problem with prosecuting people for merely reading other people’s e-mails is that it is just so easy to do when the parties are in a relationship, Rikki Klieman, a criminal defense attorney and former Court TV anchor, told Natalie Morales Tuesday on TODAY.
If prosecutors around the country follow Michigan’s lead and apply hacking laws to husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, the criminal courts will be deluged with cases that rightly belong before family court judges, Klieman said. “Are we going to put all of these people in prison? Are we going to prosecute people for felonies?
“If the legislature wants to enact a specific law that says ‘Thou shalt not look at thy spouse’s intimate e-mails,’ let them go ahead and do it,” she added. “You would think there is more serious crime they have to deal with.”
Clara Walker declined comment when contacted by NBC News.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.