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Spousal Online Surveillance in Divorce

Heading to divorce because you suspect that your spouse is having relationships outside of the marriage? You can record your own conversations with your spouse secretly. What about other activities?

In a recent Rhode Island Superior Court case (Williams vs. Stoddard et. al.), the Judge reviewed a fact pattern where the wife began to suspect the husband, a police officer, of infidelity. To confirm her suspicions, she purchased a surveillance software program and installed it on the laptop computer that she and her husband used at home.

She recorded his computer activities without his knowledge for a month, obtaining his login credentials for his email account, various social media accounts and various online dating services. She then used his login credentials to access his accounts, read and print out or email to herself various emails and instant messages.

The husband sued the wife for violating the Federal Wiretap Act, the federal Stored Communications Act, the RI Wiretap Act, the RI Computer Crimes Law, the federal Wire Fraud Act, and the federal Identity Theft Act. There are many different acts that can cover this type of behavior.

The court stated that the wife's actions of capturing typed information to be sent over the internet and using the information to access his emails and other online communication were violations of federal and Rhode Island laws. Copying his communications was another violation.

The court noted that we each have an actual and reasonable expectation of privacy, even in a shared computer when the Husband never gave any login information to the wife. The court awarded actual and punitive damages to the husband for the wife's actions. Further, the Court indicated that it is mandated to award the husband reasonable attorney fees, and directed the parties to prepare for a hearing at which time the court will consider the reasonableness of the fees requested.

The lesson to be learned is two-fold. Illegal activities not only lead to financial costs penalties, but the information obtained illegally may be precluded in a divorce hearing.  In fact, illegal activities may be viewed negatively and harm your case.

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