Online communications and criminal investigation, P.1

Privacy is obviously an important right when it comes to criminal investigations, and a good deal of criminal defense work focuses on privacy-related issues. When investigators fail to abide by a criminal suspect’s privacy rights, they can unfairly benefit from the breach unless a defendant asserts his or her rights. This is why it is so important to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

In an age where more and more people are putting private information online, whether through social media sites, email, or other online accounts, it is important to be aware of the rules governing access to this information. The law surrounding privacy of online information is not easy to summarize. The general rule, though, is that investigators must obtain a warrant before conducting what would by law be considered a search. A search generally occurs when there is an infringement of an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

When it comes to accessing email and other online communications, special rules apply. Many people do not realize that, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government is able to seize email communications which are opened or more than 180 days old without obtaining a warrant. Communications which are less than 180 days, however, require a warrant in order for police to have access. For many people, this is not only news, but surprising news. Most of us don’t consider our old email communications to be public matter when it comes to criminal investigations.

A bill currently under consideration in the House Judiciary Committee would change the law. We’ll take a look at the proposal in our next post.  

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