For the first time, a federal appeals court ruled that law enforcement must seek a search warrant to search and seize email stored by an Internet Service Provider. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers issued a press release, excerpted below:
In United States v. Warshak, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that government agents violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights when they seized his stored email without a warrant, pursuant to an outdated law, the Stored Communications Act of 1986 (SCA). “An Internet subscriber enjoys a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of emails that are stored with, or sent or received through, a commercial ISP,” the court said. “Moreover, to the extent that the SCA purports to permit the government to obtain such emails warrantlessly, the SCA is unconstitutional.”
More personal and business communications go by email than letter or fax today. The Stored Communications Act was written almost a quarter-century ago when electronic communications were a novelty, and very few people – including Congress itself – were familiar with electronic mail or even voicemail. Citizens today would find the archaic assumption that if an email stayed on a computer server for more than six month it was essentially “abandoned” as absurd.