ACLU vs. IRS over your 4th Amendment rights


I’ll bet you didn’t know it, but the IRS says it can look through your e-mails without your permission. Fortunately, the ACLU is on the case, and has successfully gotten the IRS to admit to this policy via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). From The Hill:

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has claimed that agents do not need warrants to read people’s emails, text messages and other private electronic communications, according to internal agency documents.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request, released the information on Wednesday.

In a 2009 handbook, the IRS said the Fourth Amendment does not protect emails because Internet users “do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications.” A 2010 presentation by the IRS Office of General Counsel reiterated the policy.

Naturally, a federal law is to blame:

Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, government officials only need a subpoena, issued without a judge’s approval, to read emails that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old.

Does it need saying that this is an egregious violation of the Fourth Amendment? I was unaware of this, but The Hill reports courts have held “people have limited privacy rights over information they share with third parties.” Law enforcement groups have said this means only a subpoena is necessary to look at e-mails.

The IRS has taken a similar position, even though a court even ruled against police in a related case in the Sixth Circuit and an IRS lawyer admits someone could easily turn this kind of situation into a protracted court case:

Traditionally, the courts have ruled that people have limited privacy rights over information they share with third parties. Some law enforcement groups have argued that this means they only need a subpoena to compel email providers, Internet service companies and others to turn over their customers’ sensitive content.

But in 2010, a federal appeals court ruled that police violated a man’s constitutional rights when they read his emails without a warrant.

Despite the court decision, U.S. v. Warshak, the IRS kept its email search policy unchanged in a March 2011 update to its employee manual, according to the ACLU.

In an October 2011 memo obtained by the ACLU, an IRS attorney explained that the Warshak decision only applies in the Sixth Circuit, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

Maybe if the IRS wasn’t so keen on pushing the limits on the Fourth Amendment it would have more time to handle more mundane tasks like helping law-abiding Americans pay their taxes…