Appeals Court Says Emails Are Protected By The 4th Amendment
from the good-news dept
There have been a bunch of court cases recently that have explored the question of whether or not emails stored by your ISP were protected by the 4th Amendment. Some have made the argument that “stored communication” is not protected by the 4th Amendment due to the “third party doctrine,” whereby you effectively give up your 4th Amendment rights because you’ve provided your data to someone else. Different courts have sorta bounced this topic around, ruling in a variety of different ways, while often punting on answering the question directly.
However, it appears that the 6th Circuit appeals court has said enough is enough and has ruled that your email is, in fact, protected by the 4th Amendment, with a rather clear statement on the matter:
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.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that while this court says the government is forbidden from wiretapping without a warrant, our government has decided it can ignore that rule, so don’t be surprised if it ignores this one too…