A Michigan man, Leon Walker, 33, faces up to 5 years in prison for reading his wife’s e-mail on a shared computer in their home.  Walker, who discovered his wife was having an affair by accessing her e-mail, now faces a felony for misuse of the computer under a Michigan state statute typically used to prosecute crimes like identity theft or stealing trade secrets.   Walker says the computer he used was a family computer that he routinely used and that his wife kept all of her passwords in a book next to it. Walker claims he accessed the account for the protection of his children because he man with whom his wife was having an affair has a history of domestic violence and may pose a danger to his children.

While Walker’s motivations may have been noble and while the parties may have shared the computer, this case will come down to whether or not Walker’s actions meet the statutory elements of the crime.  The parties were married when the alleged crime occurred, but accessing someone else’s e-mail without their permission can still constitute a violation of privacy.  How Walker obtained the password is the key to this case – did his wife give him permission at some point during the marriage to use her password or access her e-mails, even implicitly? Does leaving the book of passwords by the laptop constitute such permission? Or did Walker access her e-mail by unauthorized means (hacking, etc)?  

Situations like Leon Walker’s are common in divorce cases.  Tensions are high and so are suspicions.  The urge to snoop can be almost irresistible.  In Texas divorce cases, these matters typically fall under the Texas wiretapping statute, which differs from the Michigan statute used by prosecutors in Leon Walker’s case. Under Texas Penal Code 16.02, the unlawful interception of someone else’s wire, oral, or electronic communications is a second degree felony. Under this statute, Walker’s actions would likely not rise to a criminal violation since he accessed the e-mail on a family computer and his Wife left a password book in a common area in the home they share together. Walker’s wife would have had no reasonable expectation of privacy due to her lack of measures to protect the privacy of her Gmail, thus no crime by Walker depending on the facts.

Keep Leon Walker and the wire tapping statute in mind next time you decide to snoop on your spouse’s e-mail account, facebook page, or password protected cell phone.  Also, keep this in mind if you have information you would rather keep private from your spouse.  If you are thinking about filing for divorce, believe that your spouse may be or if you are doing something that you do not want your spouse to find out about (like having an affair), protect your private information by changing all passwords and security questions.  Otherwise, if you have given your spouse access to your accounts or passwords, your incriminating e-mails, texts, or pictures could end up as evidence at trial. 

You do not surrender your right to privacy when you get married. While the statutes may differ, this is true in Michigan and in Texas.  As Leon Walker’s story illustrates in a divorce, preserving your own privacy and respecting the legal limits of your soon-to-be ex’s privacy is paramount.  Even if Leon Walker is acquitted, he has to defend against a potential felony on top of the emotional and financial turmoil of divorce and discovering his wife’s infidelity.  As for Leon Walker’s now ex-wife Carla, she could have prevented this whole debacle and possibly kept her cheating ways a secret by changing her passwords or at least not leaving them written down in a book by the computer.