Concerning the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Personal E-Mails Stored on a Work Computer
In United States v. Hamilton, defendant Phillip A. Hamilton was convicted of two counts of Federal Program Bribery and Extortion Under Color of Official Right. Included in the evidence against Hamilton were messages exchanged between he and his spouse, which Hamilton argued were inadmissible as subject to marital privilege. The Government argued that because these messages were stored on a workplace computer and subject to the office’s workplace use policy, these messages were not confidential. The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia agreed with the Government, and the e-mails were admitted as evidence. Defendant appealed his conviction in the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
In continuing to promote strong workplace privacy protections, EPIC filed a “Friend of the Court” brief arguing that, in light of the eroding distinction between business and personal communications, a workplace use policy alone should not eliminate an employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy in personal communications, and that an acceptable use policy cannot retroactively alter an employee’s reasonable expectation that personal communications are private. The Fourth Circuit noted EPIC’s brief, but held that because Hamilton did not take any steps to protect the emails even though he was, through the workplace use policy, on notice that the emails were subject to search, he had waived any marital communications privilege.
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.