July 21, 2014

Warrants Permit Gov't To Seize Entire Email Account

Can the government obtain a search warrant for particular emails you may have sent or received to look for evidence of criminal conduct? Sure. Can the government execute that warrant on your email provider to get those emails? Of course, that's the point. Can the government use the warrant for certain emails to obtain all of your email correspondence and then sort through it for the ones it wants? The answer to this last question depends on which judge you ask, but according to a ruling last week, the Fourth Amendment offers you no protection.

On July 18, United States Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein (Southern District of New York) issued an opinion explaining his issuance of a warrant on June 11 in a money-laundering case that allowed the government looking for evidence of criminal conduct in particular emails to seize entire email accounts and then rummage through the entire catalog of correspondence to see if it could find anything useful. The case is In the Matter of a Warrant for All Content and Other Information Associated With the Email Account xxxxxxx@Gmail.com Maintained at Premises Controlled By Google, 14 Mag. 309.

The New York Law Journal pointed out that Gorenstein's decision was at odds with district court decisions coming out of Kansas and the District of Columbia, where the courts found the scenario more akin to a general warrant. The Court here disagreed, noting that the government can seize entire hard drives when it is searching for particular files on the drive.

The underlying question is undoubtedly headed for appellate review, if not here then elsewhere. But in the meantime, Judge Gorenstein's decision serves as a reminder of what ought to have already been obvious: emails are never really private; don't write anything in an email that you don't want the government reading; and deleting emails doesn't actually delete them.

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