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03 Jan 2011

Should it be a crime to read your spouse's e-mail? Email

Leon and Clara Walker live near Detroit, divorced on Dec 14, and clearly should never have gotten married in the first place. The case is a messy one with multiple ex-husbands and child custody battles, but its basic facts seem not to be in dispute.

Messages from Clara's Gmail account appeared in custody filings, and it turned out that Leon had logged in and retrieved them, using a shared laptop he bought. He says he did so "because he was concerned that she was exposing their young daughter to her physically abusive former husband" with whom she was having an affair.

According to news reports, Leon has been charged with violating a Michigan Law which says:

A person shall not intentionally and without authorization or by exceeding valid authorization do any of the following:
(a) Access or cause access to be made to a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network to acquire, alter, damage, delete, or destroy property or otherwise use the service of a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network.

The bit at issue is "without authorization or exceeding valid authorization" to "access" her account to "acquire" her mail. If convicted, he could be subject to a $10,000 fine and up to five years in jail.

Clara Walker says that she changed her password six times and told Leon not to read her mail. Nobody's claiming he did any exotic technical hackery, and since they used (indeed, may still use) the same laptop, it's quite possible that he just logged in using a password saved in the web browser or written down nearby. Detroit's economy being what it is, despite the divorce and the criminal charges, the Walkers apparently still live together.

Although this is, as far as anoyone knows, the first time a person has been charged with a crime for reading his or her spouse's mail, and the prosecutor insists this is a case about "hacking", the issues in the trial have nothing to do with computers. Rather they're about the demeanor of the two parties, whether the Leon's motivation for reading the mail was plausible and reasonable, and what it means that Clara is still living with him. Unless something unexpected turns up at trial, it's hard to see how the prosecutor can prove guilt to the reasonable doubt standard required in a criminal case, when the crucial facts are just he said/she said from a couple with a long troubled history.

Reading one's spouse's mail without permission may be tacky, but there are a lot of things that are tacky that are not and should not be illegal. (Where are the libertarians telling the government to stay out of our bedrooms?) Since this case appears to include plausible charges of child abuse, I have to wonder why the proscutor is wasting time with this very marginal case.

Also, the prosecutor, Jessica Cooper, has a history of being extremely aggressive, notably a case earlier this year where she charged a woman with murdering her husband, before the medical examiner finished examining the body and decided that the death was accidental.

  posted at: 21:19 :: permanent link to this entry :: 1 comments
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