United States: The Fourth Amendment Prohibits Carte Blanche Review Of Email Accounts By The Government

Those office employees who have rolled the dice and sent emails clearly not suitable for work would be glad to know that their email accounts are protected from government intrusion by the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Warshak, 631 F.3d 266, 282-88 (6th Cir. 2010). The government must obtain a search warrant to search a person's emails – just as it would in order to open letters located inside a person's mailbox. Every search warrant must particularly describe (1) the place to be searched, and (2) the persons or things (or in some cases the electronic communications) to be seized. This is easy when a warrant seeks traditional mail. The place to be searched is the suspect's mailbox, and the things to be seized are, in most cases, the letters addressed to the suspect. However, in the digital realm, whether a description of a place to be searched is sufficiently particular is a complicated question. Thus, a recent decision from the District of Kansas concerning the particularity requirements to search warrants seeking email communications stored in accounts provided by third-parties such as Google is significant for both electronic discovery purposes and Fourth Amendment law. In re Search Warrants for Info. Associated with Target Email Accounts, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123129 (D. Kan. August 27, 2013).

In 2013, the government alleged that individuals (the "Targets") purchased stolen computer equipment that they knew to be stolen and transported the equipment from Kansas to New Jersey. As part of the government's investigation, it requested that the court issue search warrants to obtain the Targets' electronic communications from five providers of electronic communication services, Google, Yahoo!, Verizon, GoDaddy, and Skype (collectively, the "Providers"). The government sought the contents of all the Targets' emails, instant messages and chat logs, and would need the Providers' assistance to obtain this information.

In previous cases involving search warrants served on electronic communications service providers, courts have issued broad warrants for the government. See United States v. Taylor, 764 F.Supp.2d 230 (D. Me. 2011); United States v. Bickle, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94921 (D. Nev., July 21, 2011); United States v. Bowen, 689 F.Supp.2d 675 (S.D.N.Y. 2010). However, in this case, rather than simply rubber stamp the warrant applications, the court denied the government's warrant applications because they violated the Fourth Amendment's particularity requirement.

Specifically, the court found that the government's five warrants failed to set any limits on the email communications and information that the Providers were to disclose to the government. The warrants instead required each Provider to disclose all email communications in their entirety and all information about the Targets' accounts without restriction. This included deleted communications, and other information stored by the Targets, including address books, contract lists, calendar data, pictures and files. Indeed, the warrants failed to set any limits on the universe of information to be disclosed to and searched by the government. The court found the breadth of information sought by the search warrants for the Targets' accounts – including the content of every email sent to or from the accounts – was best analogized to a warrant asking the post office to provide copies of all mail ever sent by or delivered to a certain address so that the government could open and read all the mail to find out whether it constituted fruits, evidence or instrumentality of a crime. In re Search Warrants, at *27-28. The Fourth Amendment would not allow such a warrant for information in paper form and, therefore, the court would not allow such a warrant for information stored in electronic form.

The court was also troubled by the government's failure to limit the universe of the electronic communications and information to be turned over to the specific crimes being investigated. A warrant is overly broad if it does not contain sufficiently particularized language that creates a nexus between the suspected crime and the things to be seized. United States v. Campos, 221 F.3d 1143, 1147 (10th Cir. 2000). Here, the government failed to create a nexus between the suspected crime of receiving stolen property and the communications and related account information to be obtained and searched. "The warrants as currently proposed g[ave] the government virtual carte blanche to review the content of all electronic communications associated with the accounts and fail[e] to adequately limit the discretion of the government-authorized agents executing the warrants." In re Search Warrants, at *29.

Additionally, the warrants did not identify any sorting or filtering procedures for electronic communications and information that was not relevant and did not fall within the scope of the government's probable cause statement. The warrants also failed to identify a procedure for filtering emails containing attorney-client privileged information. While not endorsing or suggesting any particular safeguard, the court, citing the Sedona Conference, noted that possible options included asking the Providers to provide specific limited information such as emails containing certain key words or emails sent to/from certain recipients, or setting up filter groups to review the information for relevance and privilege.

In sum, this case provides guidance on the particularity requirements that should be applied to search warrants seeking email communications stored in an account provided by an electronic communications service provider. Criminal defense attorneys – who advocate for the most expansive view of the Bill of Rights – should welcome the court's denial of the government's search warrant applications. It is a victory against general warrants in the realm of electronic information. For the government, this decision underscores the importance of the particularity and breadth standards imposed by the Fourth Amendment, which is especially important today when fruits and evidence of illegal acts are increasingly found in electronic form.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions