The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) announced today that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in their favor, meaning that Federal authorities cannot access emails without first obtaining a warrant. The court ruled that such action was in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. The decision strikes down a 1986 law that had been interpreted to allow warrantless access to emails.
The case centered on Steven Warshak, who was the owner of Premium Nutraceuticals, a mail order company that sold the “male enhancement” supplement Enzyte. He was convicted of fraud based partially on seized emails, but he won’t be getting out of jail free. The Appeals Court sent his case back to a lower court for a new sentence. The 1986 law, the Stored Communications Act, held that police were permitted to obtain emails older than 180 days without a warrant. All that was required was a special subpoena, which did not require probable cause.
The EFF filed a amicus brief with the court seeking to have the law struck down. Now that this action has been successful, authorities will need to show probably cause, and obtain a warrant before accessing emails. It is unclear if the Justice Department will pursue the case further.