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United States v. Hamilton

Concerning the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Personal E-Mails Stored on a Work Computer

Top News

  • Federal Appeals Court Addresses Email Privacy, Notes EPIC's Amicus Brief: The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has affirmed the lower court judgement in United States v. Hamilton. At issue in the case was the privacy of workplace e-mails exchanged between a husband and wife. The government argued that Hamilton waived his right to email privacy because he failed to safeguard his email after a change in the computer use workplace policy. EPIC argued as amicus curiae brief, that it would be extremely difficult for employees to securely delete all confidential saved e-mails whenever a use policy changed, an issue the court explored during oral argument. The court wrote that "In an era in which email plays a ubiquitous role in daily communications, these arguments caution against lightly finding waiver of marital privilege by email usage," but determined that Hamilton did not take any steps to protect the email and therefore had waived the spousal privilege. For more information, see EPIC: United States v. Hamilton and EPIC: Workplace Privacy. (Dec. 13, 2012)
  • Appeals Court Hears Arguments in E-mail Privacy Case: The Fourth Circuit heard oral arguments this week in United States v. Hamilton, a criminal case involving personal e-mails to a spouse sent from a workplace computer. The court focused on the scope of the marital privilege, the privacy of workplace e-mail, and whether failing to delete e-mail after a change in an email "use policy" can constitute a waiver of privilege. EPIC argued in an amicus brief that the retroactive application of a use policy as well as "a duty to delete" would be unfair to users. For more information, see EPIC: United States v. Hamilton and EPIC: Workplace Privacy. (Oct. 30, 2012)
  • EPIC Urges Federal Appeals Court Court to Uphold Workplace Privacy: EPIC has filed an amicus brief in United States v. Hamilton, urging the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold employee privacy interests in personal e-mails. The Government contends that it may obtain private emails from an employer even when they are privileged communications between spouses and there is no use policy in place, explaining that communications are subject to disclosure. The district court agreed. EPIC argued that employees in the modern workplace routinely communicate about private matters with spouses and that an employee's privacy interest cannot be retroactively waived by a use policy implemented a year later, as the lower court suggested. For more information, see EPIC: Workplace Privacy and EPIC: United States v. Hamilton. (Apr. 9, 2012)


In United States v. Hamilton, defendant Phillip A. Hamilton was convicted of two counts of Federal Program Bribery and Extortion Under Color of Official Right. Included in the evidence against Hamilton were messages exchanged between he and his spouse, which Hamilton argued were inadmissible as subject to marital privilege. The Government argued that because these messages were stored on a workplace computer and subject to the office’s workplace use policy, these messages were not confidential. The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia agreed with the Government, and the e-mails were admitted as evidence. Defendant appealed his conviction in the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In continuing to promote strong workplace privacy protections, EPIC filed a “Friend of the Court” brief arguing that, in light of the eroding distinction between business and personal communications, a workplace use policy alone should not eliminate an employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy in personal communications, and that an acceptable use policy cannot retroactively alter an employee’s reasonable expectation that personal communications are private. The Fourth Circuit noted EPIC’s brief, but held that because Hamilton did not take any steps to protect the emails even though he was, through the workplace use policy, on notice that the emails were subject to search, he had waived any marital communications privilege.

EPIC's Interest in US v. Hamilton

EPIC has an ongoing interest in promoting strong workplace privacy protections. In City of Ontario, Cal. v. Quon, EPIC filed a "Friend of the Court" brief with the US Supreme Court arguing that public employees are routinely issued advanced communications devices that store an enormous amount of personal data unrelated to their workplace activities. The Government should not be allowed to pursue unbounded searches of public employee communications, because such searches would expose employees to unnecessary security risks and violate their reasonable expectation of privacy.

Legal Documents

Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia


Related Cases

  • City of Ontario, Cal. v. Quon, 130 SCt. 2619 (2011).
  • O'Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709 (1987).
  • United States v. Simons, 206 F.3d 392 (4th Cir. 2000).
  • Am. Postal Workers Union, Columbus Area Local AFL-CIO v. U.S. Postal Serv., 871 F.2d 556 (6th Cir. 1989).
  • United States v. Angevine, 281 F.3d 1130 (10th Cir. 2002).
  • Muick v. Glenayre Electronics, 280 F.3d 741 (7th Cir. 2002).
  • Banks v. Mario Indus. of Virginia, Inc., 650 S.E.2d 687 (Va. 2007)

Law Review Articles and Books

  • Patricia Sanchez Abril, Blurred Boundaries: Social Media Privacy And The Twenty-First-Century Employee, 49 Am. Bus. L.J. 63 (2012)
  • Michael Kelsheimer & Travis Crabtree, Privacy Rights of Employees in an Electronic World, 56 The Advoc. (Texas) 60 (2011).
  • Marissa A. Lalli, Spicy Little Conversations: Technology in the Workplace and A Call for A New Cross-Doctrinal Jurisprudence, 48 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 243 (2011).
  • Ariel D. Cudkowicz et. al., Technology and Privacy in the Workplace: Monitoring Employee Communications After the Supreme Court's Quon Decision, Boston B.J., Fall 2010.
  • Jason L. Snyder, E-mail Privacy in the Workplace: A Boundary Regulation Perspective, 47 J. Bus. Comm. 266 (2010).
  • Jeffrey M. Stanton, Traditional and Electronic Monitoring from an Organizational Justice Perspective, 15 J. Bus. & Psychol. 129 (2000)

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