Thinking About Reading Your Spouse’s Emails? Think Again

We are often asked whether it is illegal in Missouri to access your spouse’s email account. Like our previous discussion of the potential consequences of tracking your spouse’s actions via spy software, there is a lot of legal gray area surrounding this action; getting into your spouse’s e-mail could both negatively affect the outcome of your case and land you in some serious trouble.

In 2010, a Michigan man was charged under that state’s computer hacking law after it was discovered he had been reading his estranged wife’s emails to determine whether she was cheating. His wife did not share her password with her husband, had never written it down, and did not store her passwords in her browser. Her husband, a computer technician, was able to figure out her password and access her Gmail account. When his wife learned about the email snooping, she reported it to the police. The case was ultimately dismissed, as it was discovered that the wife was accessing her husband’s email as well. However, it is important to note that the Michigan court did apply that state’s statute to email and did find that there was no spousal exception to unauthorized computer access.

There are a couple of laws in Missouri that could be construed as applying to a situation where one spouse accesses the other’s email, either because the password is known or guessed.

First, the Missouri Computer Tampering Act makes it a misdemeanor, and in some cases even a felony, to tamper with computer data. Presently, there are no reported Missouri cases that have addressed the specific issue of accessing your spouse’s email. However, a case could be made (similar to the case in Michigan) under the language of this law. There is also a civil law that could potentially be violated, allowing for a civil action (and recover for compensatory damages and attorney’s fees) to be brought against a spouse for tampering with computer data.

It is important to also keep in mind that accessing your spouse’s email account could violate federal laws such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Wiretap Act and Stored Communications Act. Again, there have been no reported cases involving criminal convictions under these federal laws. However, individuals have succeeded in civil actions against their spouses for violations of these laws.

Due to the uncertainty of the law in this area, you should err on the side of caution and not access your spouse’s email, especially when you are in the midst of a divorce. Whatever knowledge you may gain is easily overshadowed by the potential consequences if you are caught, both criminally and civilly.

With a combined thirty years in family law, the attorneys at Jones Family Law Group, LLC can help guide you through these fraught situations. For questions, or to schedule a confidential consultation, contact our team.