Focusing public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues

United States v. Hamilton

Concerning the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Personal E-Mails Stored on a Work Computer

Top News

  • Federal Appeals Court Addresses Email Privacy, Notes EPIC's Amicus Brief: The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has affirmed the lower court judgement in United States v. Hamilton. At issue in the case was the privacy of workplace e-mails exchanged between a husband and wife. The government argued that Hamilton waived his right to email privacy because he failed to safeguard his email after a change in the computer use workplace policy. EPIC argued as amicus curiae brief, that it would be extremely difficult for employees to securely delete all confidential saved e-mails whenever a use policy changed, an issue the court explored during oral argument. The court wrote that "In an era in which email plays a ubiquitous role in daily communications, these arguments caution against lightly finding waiver of marital privilege by email usage," but determined that Hamilton did not take any steps to protect the email and therefore had waived the spousal privilege. For more information, see EPIC: United States v. Hamilton and EPIC: Workplace Privacy. (Dec. 13, 2012)
  • Appeals Court Hears Arguments in E-mail Privacy Case: The Fourth Circuit heard oral arguments this week in United States v. Hamilton, a criminal case involving personal e-mails to a spouse sent from a workplace computer. The court focused on the scope of the marital privilege, the privacy of workplace e-mail, and whether failing to delete e-mail after a change in an email "use policy" can constitute a waiver of privilege. EPIC argued in an amicus brief that the retroactive application of a use policy as well as "a duty to delete" would be unfair to users. For more information, see EPIC: United States v. Hamilton and EPIC: Workplace Privacy. (Oct. 30, 2012)
  • EPIC Urges Federal Appeals Court Court to Uphold Workplace Privacy: EPIC has filed an amicus brief in United States v. Hamilton, urging the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold employee privacy interests in personal e-mails. The Government contends that it may obtain private emails from an employer even when they are privileged communications between spouses and there is no use policy in place, explaining that communications are subject to disclosure. The district court agreed. EPIC argued that employees in the modern workplace routinely communicate about private matters with spouses and that an employee's privacy interest cannot be retroactively waived by a use policy implemented a year later, as the lower court suggested. For more information, see EPIC: Workplace Privacy and EPIC: United States v. Hamilton. (Apr. 9, 2012)


Defendant Phillip A. Hamilton was charged with two counts of Federal Program Bribery and Extortion Under Color of Official Right on January 5, 2011. United States v. Hamilton, 778 F. Supp. 2d 651, 652 (E.D.Va. 2011). Hamilton served as a member of the Virginia General Assembly and was also employed by Newport News Public Schools ("NNPS"). As a member of the Assembly, Hamilton sponsored legislation that eventually led to the creation and funding of Old Dominion University’s (“ODU’s”) Center for Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership (“the Center”). Prior to the legislation, Hamilton approached ODU administration and offered to introduce the funding bill. Hamilton was eventually appointed Director of the Center, and worked there in various capacities for two years, receiving $87,271 in compensation.

Prior to Hamilton's trial in May 2011, the Government moved to admit evidence of electronic messages exchanged between Hamilton and his wife on August 16, 2006. Id. These messages were stored on his NPPS office computer and eventually seized by the Government during a warrant search of his office. Hamilton argued that the messages were subject to marital privilege and therefore inadmissible. Id. The Government argued that because NPPS had a computer workplace use policy in effect at the time that the stored messages were seized, Hamilton had no reasonable expectation of privacy in their contents, and they were not “confidential.” The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia agreed, dismissing Hamilton's argument that his reasonable expectation of privacy should be determined at the time that the e-mails were sent and received rather than at the time the FBI seized them.

Defendant Hamilton was indicted on two counts on January 5, 2011. The Government filed a motion on March 9, 2011 to admit into evidence electronic messages stored by the defendant and previously exchanged between the defendant and his spouse. Defendant responded to the Government’s motion on March 24, 2011 and the district court held a hearing on the motion on April 6, 2011. The district court granted the Government’s motion to admit evidence on April 11, 2011. After a 10-day jury trial, defendant Hamilton was convicted on both counts on May 11, 2011. The court sentenced defendant to imprisonment of 114 months, to be served consecutively on both counts, on August 12, 2011. Defendant filed a notice of appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on August 24, 2011. The Fourth Circuit granted counsel’s motion to withdraw on appeal, and appointed Lawrence H. Woodard, Jr. to represent appellant. On November 22, 2011 the Fourth Circuit filed its briefing order in the case, with Appellant Hamilton’s opening brief due on December 27, 2011. The Fourth Circuit filed several amended briefing orders and accepted motions to extend. Appellant Hamilton filed his opening brief on March 30, 2012.

EPIC's Interest in US v. Hamilton

EPIC has an ongoing interest in promoting strong workplace privacy protections. In City of Ontario, Cal. v. Quon, EPIC filed a "Friend of the Court" brief with the US Supreme Court arguing that public employees are routinely issued advanced communications devices that store an enormous amount of personal data unrelated to their workplace activities. The Government should not be allowed to pursue unbounded searches of public employee communications, because such searches would expose employees to unnecessary security risks and violate their reasonable expectation of privacy.

Legal Documents

Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia


Related Cases

  • City of Ontario, Cal. v. Quon, 130 SCt. 2619 (2011).
  • O'Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709 (1987).
  • United States v. Simons, 206 F.3d 392 (4th Cir. 2000).
  • Am. Postal Workers Union, Columbus Area Local AFL-CIO v. U.S. Postal Serv., 871 F.2d 556 (6th Cir. 1989).
  • United States v. Angevine, 281 F.3d 1130 (10th Cir. 2002).
  • Muick v. Glenayre Electronics, 280 F.3d 741 (7th Cir. 2002).
  • Banks v. Mario Indus. of Virginia, Inc., 650 S.E.2d 687 (Va. 2007)

Law Review Articles and Books

  • Patricia Sanchez Abril, Blurred Boundaries: Social Media Privacy And The Twenty-First-Century Employee, 49 Am. Bus. L.J. 63 (2012)
  • Michael Kelsheimer & Travis Crabtree, Privacy Rights of Employees in an Electronic World, 56 The Advoc. (Texas) 60 (2011).
  • Marissa A. Lalli, Spicy Little Conversations: Technology in the Workplace and A Call for A New Cross-Doctrinal Jurisprudence, 48 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 243 (2011).
  • Ariel D. Cudkowicz et. al., Technology and Privacy in the Workplace: Monitoring Employee Communications After the Supreme Court's Quon Decision, Boston B.J., Fall 2010.
  • Jason L. Snyder, E-mail Privacy in the Workplace: A Boundary Regulation Perspective, 47 J. Bus. Comm. 266 (2010).
  • Jeffrey M. Stanton, Traditional and Electronic Monitoring from an Organizational Justice Perspective, 15 J. Bus. & Psychol. 129 (2000)

News Reports

Print Media