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Can the government access my personal e-mail account and use those e-mails against me in a disciplinary action?

Frederick, MD |
Filed under: Civil rights

I have a Yahoo e-mail account. I am absolutely certain that when the government suddenly seized my government-owned laptop, I left an open portal to my personal Yahoo account on the bookmarks bar of my web browser that enabled access to this account without a password. I was subsequently charged with misuse of government IT equipment. Among the evidence documenting the charge were 18 e-mails that were clearly sent from my non-government iPhone on a non-government network (Verizon) to a non-government e-mail address. There is no other way that anyone could have accessed these e-mails without having penetrated my remote on-line e-mail service. Is this illegal, and more importantly, if so, what are the potential penalties? Thank you.

Attorney Answers 2


Simply put, you should not have used your government issued computer to access a private e-mail account period. I'd also expect there to be some kind of policy in place by the employer that prohibits personal use of company items. That being said, once you use an employer's computer or other equipment for e-mail purposes, even though it's a non-work e-mail account, you might have lost the expectation of privacy in those e-mails or that account.

At this point, I do not believe this has been tested in Maryland courts, other courts have consistently found in favor of employers, ruling that employees do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the computer equipment owned by the employer, even when the employees have password-protected accounts.

DISCLAIMER: Brandy A. Peeples is licensed to practice law in the State of Maryland. This answer is being provided for informational purposes only and the laws of your jurisdiction may differ. This answer based on general legal principles and is not intended for the purpose of providing specific legal advice or opinions. Under no circumstances does this answer constitute the establishment of an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice relating to your specific situation, I strongly urge you to consult with an attorney in your area. NO COMMUNICATIONS WITH ME ARE TO BE CONSTRUED AS ARISING FROM AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP AND NO ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP WILL BE ESTABLISHED WITH ME UNLESS I HAVE EXPRESSLY AGREED TO UNDERTAKE YOUR REPRESENTATION, WHICH INCLUDES THE EXECUTION OF A WRITTEN AGREEMENT OF RETAINER.

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I agree with counsel that you lose your normal expectation of privacy when you use an employer's equipment to access your personal email accounts. You should consult with an attorney with much experience in employment law.

Office: (410) 381-1656. This is NOT legal advice, is GENERAL INFORMATION ONLY, and does NOT establish an Attorney/Client Relationship with you. Therefore my answer cannot address your specific legal situation and you should not rely upon my answer in your legal matter. I am an attorney licensed in Maryland and California. Office: (410) 381-1656. David Mahood, Esq.

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