By Gerri Elder
Lawmakers have struggled to keep up with Internet technology in the past decade or so, but there are still many instances in which legal issues regarding computer use and data must be decided by a judge or judicial panel. In these cases there may be no existing law dealing with the issue at hand, or the existing statutes and case law decisions may be vague or outdated.
The use of information retrieved from a computer has been the subject of a discovery dispute in a New York divorce case. The New York Law Journal reports that a Manhattan judge recently ruled that the information contained on a laptop computer that a woman removed from the trunk of a family car can be used to bolster her divorce.
The woman's husband had fought to have the information from the computer excluded from the case, arguing that she had improperly "seized" his work-issued laptop; however, New York Supreme Court Justice Saralee Evans threw out the husband's motion to suppress the evidence because she found that the wife had broken no laws when she accessed the computer.
Frank and Dorothy Moore were married in June 1963. The marriage fell apart, and in April 2007, Dorothy Moore filed for divorce on the grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment.
Since New York law does not allow for no fault divorce, as most other states do, sufficient grounds for divorce must be proven. Mrs. Moore claimed that in addition to other mistreatment she endured, her husband had a sexual relationship with a woman from Texas who he had met in an Internet chat room.
Mrs. Moore's divorce lawyer, Michael Stutman, told a New York Law Journal reporter that his client had discovered evidence of her husband's affair on the computer while looking for financial information. She reportedly found hundreds of pages of sexy and explicit instant message conversations that her husband had with the other woman. According to Mrs. Moore and her two adult daughters, the laptop was a shared family computer. Mr. Moore maintains that it was a personal computer that had been issued to him by his employer.
During pretrial depositions, Mr. Moore was questioned about the instant message conversations that were found on the computer. He refused to answer and filed a motion to suppress on the grounds that Mrs. Moore violated the Penal Law's prohibitions against intercepting electronic communications and using a computer without authorization when she accessed his online chat records.
Mrs. Moore contested the motion to suppress and cited case law in which Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice William Rigler likened a home computer to a filing cabinet. Justice Evans agreed with Justice Rigler's analogy and sided with Mrs. Moore.
Additionally, Justice Evans found that the sections of the Penal Law cited by Mr. Moore were irrelevant to the circumstances in the divorce case. She also found that Mrs. Moore's actions did not constitute computer trespass or using a computer without authorization because the instant message chat files were contained on a readily accessible computer.
Mr. Moore's divorce lawyer said that the case law cited by Mrs. Moore in her challenge to the motion to suppress is already outdated, as the referenced case was decided before the use of online chat, e-mail and instant messaging were common.
From Justice Evan's decision we can glean that computers are considered by the court to be high-tech filing cabinets. The difference is, now these "filing cabinets" contain a lot more than yawn-worthy financial documents and records. These days, computer hard drives can reveal plenty of embarrassing and even damning evidence that can often be used in divorce court.