On Tuesday, a federal Appeals Court in the 6th U.S. Circuit ruled that the government must obtain a search warrant based on probable cause before it can seize and search emails stored by internet service providers (ISPs).  The Court held that email users have a Fourth Amendment reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of their email accounts.

The Court stated:

Given the fundamental similarities between email and traditional forms of communication [like postal mail and telephone calls], it would defy common sense to afford emails lesser Fourth Amendment protection…. It follows that email requires strong protection under the Fourth Amendment; otherwise the Fourth Amendment would prove an ineffective guardian of private communication, an essential purpose it has long been recognized to serve…. [T]he police may not storm the post office and intercept a letter, and they are likewise forbidden from using the phone system to make a clandestine recording of a telephone call–unless they get a warrant, that is. It only stands to reason that, if government agents compel an ISP to surrender the contents of a subscriber’s emails, those agents have thereby conducted a Fourth Amendment search, which necessitates compliance with the warrant requirement….

Also noteworthy was the Court’s statement “(t)he Fourth Amendment must keep pace with the inexorable march of technological progress, or its guarantees will wither and perish.”

Specifically at issue in this case was The Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701, a 1986 law that allowed the government to obtain a suspect’s e-mail from an ISP without a probable cause warrant if the email was stored on an ISP for more than 180 days.  In its December 14th ruling, the Appeals Court found this section of the Act to be unconstitutional.

This decision is significant as it is the first time an appellate court said Americans had this Fourth Amendment protection.  To read the full case, please click here: Warshak v. United States.