Husband in Hot Water: Man Faces Five Years in Prison for Snooping Through Wife's E-Mails

If convicted, Walker could face up to five years in prison for e-mail snooping.

December 27, 2010, 10:31 PM

Dec. 28, 2010 — -- Could someone face prison time for snooping through a spouse's e-mails?

For Leon Walker of Michigan, the answer was yes.

Suspecting that his wife was involved with another man, and worried that it was affecting their daughter, Walker logged into Clara Walker's Gmail account last summer.

Walker, 33, said it was easy for him to log in because his wife kept the password in a book next to the computer.

"I definitely felt it was OK to confirm [the affair] by reading her e-mail in our home," said Walker.

While Walker believed it was OK, Oakland County prosecutors did not and have charged Walker with felony misuse of a computer. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.

This is Michigan's first criminal prosecution for snooping through a spouse's e-mails. So far, two Michigan judges have refused to toss out the charges in the potentially precedent-setting case.

"It's outrageous. It's insane," Walker, who is now divorced, told ABC News.

Prosecutors contend that Walker -- who is a computer technician -- illegally hacked into his wife's computer after she had filed for divorce, but Walker's lawyer calls the prosecution's claim an overzealous application of a law meant to protect trade secrets and credit card data.

"People who live under the same roof, be they married or not, and who share a computer -- as in this instance -- they may have some personal privacy lines that they adhere to. And if they don't, that's between the two individuals," defense attorney Leon Weiss said.

"The word 'e-mail' does not appear in this statute. This is an anti-hacking statute," Weiss said. "It does not, in any way, shape or form encompass reading somebody's e-mail."

Prosecutors scoff at defense claims that Walker is a victim.

"Apparently, they are trying the case in the media, because they are not doing so well in the courts," Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper said in a statement.

While Walker's case is a first for Michigan, it is not the first time the privacy between a husband and wife has become a matter for the courts. Federal privacy laws state that even with a shared computer, password protected e-mail accounts are private, unless one of the parties allows access.

"The law is a simple unauthorized access law: It prohibits unauthorized viewing of someone else's password-protected files," said Orin Kerr, an Internet legal expert. "The legal issue here would be whether the wife gave the man permission to view her account. If she did not, this is a pretty straightforward."

And experts say the same law would apply to other forms of communication, including a letter addressed to your spouse.

"If you give them permission, you can do anything you want to. But if you don't, it might be a crime," said Perry Aftab, a privacy lawyer.

Walker will face trial Feb. 7 in a case that could set bold new boundaries in the murky area of privacy between a husband and a wife.

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