Tell-All PCs and Phones Transforming Divorce

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Here are some quotes from a front page New York Times article today, Tell-All PCs and Phones Transforming Divorce.

Divorce lawyers routinely set out to find every bit of private data about their clients’ adversaries, often hiring investigators with sophisticated digital forensic tools to snoop into household computers.

“In just about every case now, to some extent, there is some electronic evidence,” said Gaetano Ferro, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who also runs seminars on gathering electronic evidence. “It has completely changed our field.”

Privacy advocates have grown increasingly worried that digital tools are giving governments and powerful corporations the ability to peek into peoples’ lives as never before. But the real snoops are often much closer to home.

“Google and Yahoo may know everything, but they don’t really care about you,” said Jacalyn F. Barnett, a Manhattan-based divorce lawyer. “No one cares more about the things you do than the person that used to be married to you.”

The article continues,

Divorce lawyers say their files are filled with cases like these. Three-quarters of the cases of Nancy Chemtob, a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, now involve some kind of electronic communications. She says she routinely asks judges for court orders to seize and copy the hard drives in the computers of her clients’ spouses, particularly if there is an opportunity to glimpse a couple’s full financial picture, or a parent’s suitability to be the custodian of the children.

Lawyers must navigate a complex legal landscape governing the admissibility of this kind of electronic evidence. Different laws define when it is illegal to get access to information stored on a computer in the home, log into someone else’s e-mail account, or listen in on phone calls.

Divorce lawyers say, however, if the computer in question is shared by the whole family, or couples have revealed their passwords to each other, reading a spouse’s e-mail messages and introducing them as evidence in a divorce case is often allowed.

Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer, describes one client, a man, who believed his wife was engaging in secret online correspondence. He found e-mail messages to a lover in Australia that she had sent from a private AOL account on the family computer. Her lawyer then challenged the use of this evidence in court. Ms. Gold-Bikin’s client won the dispute and an advantageous settlement.

Lawyers say the only communications that are consistently protected in a spouse’s private e-mail account are the messages to and from the lawyers themselves, which are covered by lawyer-client privilege.

Perhaps for this reason, divorce lawyers as a group are among the most pessimistic when it comes to assessing the overall state of privacy in the digital age.

“I do not like to put things on e-mail,” said David Levy, a Chicago divorce lawyer. “There’s no way it’s private. Nothing is fully protected once you hit the send button.”

Ms. Chemtob added, “People have an expectation of privacy that is completely unrealistic.”

James Mulvaney agrees. A private investigator, Mr. Mulvaney now devotes much of his time to poking through the computer records of divorcing spouses, on behalf of divorce lawyers. One of his specialties is retrieving files, like bank records and e-mail messages to secret lovers, that a spouse has tried to delete.

“Every keystroke on your computer is there, forever and ever,” Mr. Mulvaney said.

He had one bit of advice. “The only thing you can truly erase these things with is a specialty Smith & Wesson product,” he said. “Throw your computer into the air and play skeet with it.”

I was pleased to see Guy Ferro, AAML president quoted in the article as well as Lynne Gold-Bickin who is coming to present at our seminar in Louisville next April and David Levy, who was here this past April and with whom I am co-counseling on a case. I may post more in the coming days about the law in this area. Meanwhile, thanks to Marcia Oddi at Indiana Law Blog for spotting this article and posting about it here while I was out having a grand old time at Idea Festival.

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