Man who spied on cheating wife's email has charges against him dropped (because she was snooping back)

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Upset couple in bed. Image from ShutterstockA US man has been cleared of all charges for secretly reading his wife's email to determine if she was having an affair.

She was, it turns out.

But it was her own snoopiness that made the Oakland County, Michigan prosecutors drop the five-year felony charge against 34-year-old Leon Walker, a computer technician for the county.

Leon Walker was Clara’s third husband.

He became suspicious that she was having an affair when she didn't come home one night in 2009.

Walker began to read his wife's email on a shared computer in their Rochester Hills, Michigan, home. That's when he learned she was having an affair with her second husband, a man who had been previously arrested for beating her in front of a child she had with her first husband.

Concerned for the child's safety, Walker notified Clara's first husband.

The case of spousal snooping caught the attention of the media. Here's a YouTube video of a TV report about the case from the time:

Last week, the attorney for Leon's wife, Clara Walker, submitted a CD full of emails by Clara admitting that she'd been reading text messages on her husband's phone while the two were married in 2009.

Because her submission of evidence showed that she was guilty of the same family of snooping crime she was charging her husband with, prosecutors had to drop the case.

As chief assistant prosecutor Paul Walton told the Detroit Free Press:

When we learned this, we immediately moved to drop the charges. She is a witness in this case, and it becomes a Fifth Amendment issue.

(The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution protects witnesses from being forced to incriminate themselves.)

Clara Walker and Leon Walker

Although the hacking charge was dropped, Leon Walker was still facing a second charge of attempting to access a confidential law enforcement database, which would have constituted a violation of state law.

That second charge stemmed from Walker's admission that he asked a coworker how to access the database, called CLEMIS, to see if anyone else in the county had ever been charged with snooping on a spouse's email. None had, it turned out.

Prosecutors dropped this last charge on Thursday after it emerged that Leon Walker may have been given permission to use the system, or that, at least, he might not have been properly informed that its use was restricted, according to The Register.

Leon Walker has been on paid leave from his job since he was initially arrested.

In a relieved personal blog posting, he gave thanks to the end of the ordeal that he and the daughter he had with Clara Walker endured as the court battle dragged on:

I am free. All charges against me have been dropped. After two years, 5 months, and 19 days of enduring this arduous battle for my freedom, for my name, and for the right to protect my daughter, I am free. And just as if I’d spent this time fighting off the attack of the word’s biggest, most vicious grizzly bear, I wear the scars of battle. My daughter and I have both suffered unthinkably because of this.

A press release issued by Leon Weiss, a lawyer working for Leon Walker, expressed hopes of getting the law changed to prevent domestic charges like these in the future. The Oakland Press quoted from the release:

Hopefully, this case, which has garnered international attention, will prompt the Michigan Legislature to finally pass the proposed amendment to the Anti-Hacking Statute which would exclude from prosecution spouses and parents who check their kids' email or social networking sites.

Should spouses be allowed to sue if their partner eavesdrops on their email? Should parents be facing felony charges if they check up on their children's online activity?

I'd say no to both, but then, I wouldn't leave my email account lying around waiting to be read on a shared computer, regardless of whether or not I was up to no good.

Do you agree? Why not leave us a comment below and tell us what you think?

Whatever your view, if you don't want someone to read your email without your permission - you would be wise to adopt sensible password security practices. That means running up-to-date anti-virus software, never telling anyone your passwords, never using the same passwords in multiple places, and not making your password easy to guess or crack.

Upset couple in bed image from ShutterStock

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22 Responses to Man who spied on cheating wife's email has charges against him dropped (because she was snooping back)

  1. Rob · 799 days ago

    I honestly think that looking at a current partner's email should not be something you can be prosecuted for, a verbal warning or caution at worst to provide a mechanism should the relationship break down whereby all such activity must cease.

    If I was in this situation myself I would confront my partner and ask them openly if I can view their phone messages & emails, their response either way would tell me enough that I wouldn't need to follow through.

    • Guest · 799 days ago

      It isn't that difficult to purchase a piece of software to crack the passwords on just about any PC - I am aware of this because of involvement in computer maintenance in the past. I assume the same is available for Mac computers as well. Where there's a will there's a way, so the best policy is honesty (as we've heard since we were children). The only real protection against getting caught in deception is to be innocent in the first place. Life's too short and eventually the truth will out and if your truth is a dirty one it will have the effect you dread sooner or later. There's only one way to avoid being caught doing wrong and that is by not doing wrong.

  2. Black A.M · 799 days ago

    IMO it's more of an ethical issue than a criminal one.

  3. guest · 799 days ago

    I think email, like US postal mail, is private and should not be read by anyone but the recipient without express permission to do so. If one is sneaky enough to read it anyway, it should still be kept private and not acted on.

    Rob, the issue is one of privacy, not guilt or innocence. It sounds like you would have been one of those folks who burned people as witches when they wouldn't confess to being one.

    • Something that has been bandied about since the early days of email on the Internet, and is in the original Email Netiquette FAQ (that was required reading before using email services back in the day):

      Email is not like a letter; an email is like a post card. The contents are delivered visible for all to see.

      Now these days we have SSL/TLS encryption, etc. but that only encrypts between your mail client and the mail transfer agent -- email comes with no guarantees of being private, and may be read anywhere along the path from the sender to the recipient's inbox. Encrypting the contents is the only sure way to prevent the contents from being read -- and this doesn't prevent the message headers from being read (which might be incriminating in themselves in some situations).

      Aside from this, you're right: it's a privacy issue. Families usually have established rules for privacy, and many places have enacted privacy laws. If people have a pre-existing assumption of no privacy between them in this area, they have no expectation of it for specific instances of snooping. If they DO have an agreed upon set of privacy rules, things get trickier, depending on the local laws of the land. In my opinion, laws aimed at preventing computer intrusion should never be diluted by being applied to such situations, however.

  4. m33r_m0rt4l · 799 days ago

    Is opening your spouses mail (not email) legal? I believe it is a federal offense.
    Why would email be any different? In Layman's terms, its my private information that should not be accessed without my consent period. Yes it should be at the very least a misdemeanor.

    From the U.S. Code Online via GPO Access
    [www.gpoaccess.gov]
    [Laws in effect as of January 3, 2007]
    [CITE: 18USC1702]

    TITLE 18--CRIMES AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE

    PART I--CRIMES

    CHAPTER 83--POSTAL SERVICE

    Sec. 1702. Obstruction of correspondence

    Whoever takes any letter, postal card, or package out of any post
    office or any authorized depository for mail matter, or from any letter
    or mail carrier, or which has been in any post office or authorized
    depository, or in the custody of any letter or mail carrier, before it
    has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to
    obstruct the correspondence, or to pry into the business or secrets of
    another, or opens, secretes, embezzles, or destroys the same, shall be
    fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

    (June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 778; Pub. L. 103-322, title XXXIII,
    Sec. 330016(1)(I), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2147.)

    • Ben · 798 days ago

      The obstruction occurs if the mail is taken out of or from an authorized depository BEFORE it has been delivered to the addressee. Once delivered, if the addressee leaves it lying around, throws it in the trash without shredding it, etc it becomes fair game for anyone else to read.

      Legal issues aside, if someone believes s/he needs to read a spouse's or child's mail, snail or otherwise, there are much deeper issues to contend with other than privacy.

  5. If you don't want your partner reading your mail, make sure your account and password are secure.

  6. I think this is no more than looking into pockets or a handbag. Only with technology in between.

  7. JMJ · 799 days ago

    Children, Yes. A parent has, among a great many other things, the duty to guide and to protect his Child; he must also have the authority to do so.

    Spouse, No. Unless they have specifically agreed otherwise, spouses (Shouldn't that be *spice*?) should not open each others mail, including email, text messages, etc. Marriage should mean more respect not less. A crime or invasion of privacy is just that, no matter against whom it is perpetrated. Actually, it is more offensive when such an act is committed against one we promised to "Love, cherish, etc."

    There are more honorable (legal) ways to catch the lying scuzzball.

  8. Randy · 799 days ago

    "she was having an affair with her second husband, a man who had been previously arrested for beating her in front of a child she had with her first husband"

    Sounds like he married into trouble. I hope he checks out his next relationship more carefully.

  9. Joseph Richins · 799 days ago

    I have nothing to hide from wife, and she has nothing to hide from me. We flip back and forth between each other's email accounts, facebook, etc. all the time.

  10. Internaut · 799 days ago

    Is reading a spouse's email is that is not password or encrypted comparable to opening any spouses snailmail? Is an collection of opened a lovers snailmail private if left in a drawer or tabletop ripe for spouses to peek through?

    A credit card bill arrives for Mr. Then Mrs sees the envelope and opens it. She notes a number of visits to a local motel. Is that acceptable or not? Not the hotel silly, opening the bill :)

    Is following one's spouse around, or hiring a detective to snoop any different than reading open email? What about nanny or security cams in the house? I can log on to the net at the office and check every room at home. If I spot my spouse paying the repairman with something other than cash or cheque, is that an invasion of a spouses privacy? If it's OK to hire a detective and use that data to file for a divorce, what is the difference in the spouse reviewing the others email, if the email is opened and laying about on a computer?

    There are a lot places these new laws are going and some laws are too myopic and restricting freedoms.

    Governments, police, courts, and the public are quick to blame parents when kids go bad, missing, or runaway. Parents are expected to look after their kids. But the tools are not there. If the new laws prevent parents from accessing kids emails, Internet habits, chats, social groups, and such then it becomes more difficult for parents to police their children. On the other hand, schools are allowed to use security cams to monitor the parent's offspring anywhere at school, except showers, and washrooms. The teacher can also look in to the computer to see what the kids are doing.

    There are a toll of what-ifs, and will Internet laws are becoming so bogged down with sub sections and exceptions that each spouse and parent will need a Philadelphia lawyer to check with first, before peeking at anything. Guess who are writing the laws!

    Summed: If one wants to hide emails, pword them, or encrypt and store.

  11. riggarob · 799 days ago

    But everyone is OK w/the Govnm't doing it to all of us, w/o provocation, eh ??

  12. Joe · 799 days ago

    My wife and I are free to read each other's mail (electronic and postal) by agreement, and I wouldn't stay with someone without such an agreement. You need privacy from a spouse only if you have something to hide.

    I also have access to email of some close friends, also by agreement.

    Making reading email of someone you live with illegal seems pretty silly to me, and not conducive to a close relationship. At the very most, reading spousal email without permission should be considered rude, but never illegal.

  13. MarkS. · 799 days ago

    Marriage and family carries with it some important aspect of respect and trust. Having this as a subject to legal constrains (regardless which way) seems far stretched if not absurd.

    My view is that once you agreed to enter marriage, one agrees to entrust the other with the most sensitive aspects of his life. Correspondence is a minor aspect of life.

    Wife has access to email / texts, etc... (and so do I to hers); The only "downside" is the algorithm for my password is too complicated so she comes and asks every time she's in the mood to read through my correspondence.

    I didn't give up on educating, and in turn she nowadays keeps a simple but a (lot more) secure system of choosing her passwords. The daughter though likes very complex passwords :) She's too young to introduce her to algorithms, so once in a while she asks me to help reset whatever 20-30 mixed case alpha-numeric and special characters she's chosen for a while and then forgot....

    Only thinking about the idea that state may have a word to say in all this and potentially charge anyone in my family is revolting and I make the point that this is none of the state's business and any such competence that it may have should be revoked...

    Just makes me wonder who gave the state such rights and who negotiated these in my name ...

  14. Kathy · 799 days ago

    Having access to a friend's email even by agreement is over the line for me unless said friend is physically or mentally challenged in some way.. ick!

  15. Freida Gray · 799 days ago

    From the article, it appears that the wife was one of those people who didn't seem to logout/signout of her e-mail account when she was finished with it.The article never said that her husband had to use her password to access her e-mail.It may even be possible that she used Windows Live as her email account.That webmail account has no sign out feature that I've seen.

  16. VFAC · 799 days ago

    There have been a few cases (generally regarding the discovery of child pornography) where the reading of email or accessing of personal files on a computer with shared access and no statements of restriction where in place, or passwords that implied a desire for additional privacy was deemed to be legal. Stumbling across something on a computer in the home seems much like stumbling across something in the closet at home. In other cases that involved shared computers in a work environment where someone had gone to the computer with the intent of reading email and did so without having to use a password was considered unacceptable as the person acted with the intent to intrude on someones privacy. __The legal system seems more or less capable of dealing with these complicated situations as it is. Creating laws like this just creates a tool for spousal abuse.There have been a few cases (generally regarding the discovery of child pornography) where the reading of email or accessing of personal files on a computer with shared access and no statements of restriction where in place, or passwords that implied a desire for additional privacy was deemed to be legal. Stumbling across something on a computer in the home seems much like stumbling across something in the closet at home. In other cases that involved shared computers in a work environment where someone had gone to the computer with the intent of reading email and did so without having to use a password was considered unacceptable as the person acted with the intent to intrude on someones privacy.

    The legal system seems more or less capable of dealing with these complicated situations as it is. Creating laws like this just creates a tool for spousal abuse.

  17. Marc · 797 days ago

    I would have thought that life partners should be able to trust each other. We share our passwords to all our email, Facebook, Twitter etc. accounts because we have nothing to hide. We are free to read each others accounts if we choose. I don't think I would want to live with someone who could not trust in this way. Prosecuting someone for snooping? I think it is too trivial a matter to be dealt with in that manner. If you don't want your partner to see what you write then why are you with them and what are you hiding?

  18. Rokerry1 · 796 days ago

    you must not read your partner's emails

    • Viper · 794 days ago

      ... and not cheat them. If the people had the character to do the latter, they would not even try the former.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.