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Employee Who Read and Printed Coworker’s Emails Found Not Guilty of Violating the Stored Communications Act

A New Jersey court recently held that a teacher who accessed and printed a co-worker’s personal email after the coworker left the computer  without signing out of her account was not guilty of a crime.

By Alice Cheng

In Marcus v. Rogers, 2012 WL 2428046 (N.J.Super.A.D. June 28, 2012), a New Jersey court held that a defendant was not in violation of any laws when he snooped through the emails of a coworker who had forgotten to sign out of a shared computer.

The defendant, a teacher who was involved in a salary dispute with the school district he worked for, sat down to use a computer in the school’s computer room when he accidentally bumped the mouse of the computer next to him. The screen of the adjacent computer came alive to show the Yahoo! email inbox of a member of the education association he was in dispute with, which included two emails that clearly mentioned him. He then clicked on the emails, printed them out, and used them at a meeting with the education association as evidence that they had not bargained in good faith.

The individuals who were  copied on the email conversations filed suit, claiming that the defendant had violated New Jersey’s version of the Stored Communications Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:156A-27), which reads in pertinent part:

A person is guilty . . . if he (1) knowingly accesses without authorization a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided or exceeds an authorization to access that facility, and (2) thereby obtains, alters, or prevents authorized access to a wire or [an] electronic communication while that communication is in electronic storage.

The court found that the defendant did not “knowingly access [the facility] without authorization” as it was the previous user who had logged into the account. The judge then let the jury decide whether or not he “exceed[ed] an authorization to access that facility” when she failed to close her inbox and log out of her account. The jury found that did not, as he had “tacit authorization” to access the account. On appeal, the court affirmed.

While there is no clear answer to the question of whether snooping emails is illegal (as always, it depends), always remember to log out of public computers. Similarly, all mobile devices, such as smartphones or laptops, should be password protected. As for the email snoopers, be forewarned that snooping may nevertheless carry major consequences, if hacking or unauthorized access is found.