Q. My ex-husband and I are involved in a bitter custody dispute. I recently realized he had not changed his Email password, and so I was able to enter his account and review his emails. I found evidence that proves he is using drugs, and I think this puts my son at grave risk. How should I best present this evidence to the Family Law Judge?
Invasions of Privacy May Constitute Domestic Violence
A. In my opinion you don't, and I'd advise you to stop snooping
his emails no matter how important you think it is for the safety of your
child. Beyond the fact that you expose yourself to a civil lawsuit for
invasion of the Father's privacy, and have violated various State
and Federal laws, you run a couple of other serious risks that may adversely
affect the custody outcome you seek - these far outweigh whatever advantage
you think the information gives you.
Most importantly as it relates to custody under California law, invading someone's email account and sharing what you find quite arguably constitutes a form of domestic violence. This was established two years ago in a case entitled Marriage of Nadkarni (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 1483. If permanent restraining orders are issued in a domestic violence action that your ex could choose to file against you when he learned what you'd done (i.e., when you submitted the emails as exhibits filed with the court), a smothering presumption arises against you under Family Code section 3044 "that an award of sole or joint physical or legal custody of a child to a person who has perpetrated domestic violence is detrimental to the best interest of the child, pursuant to Section 3011." In other words, if the family court granted orders against you as a result of this conduct, you may end up assuring you lose your case and hence the ability to safeguard the very persons whom you hope to protect.
In Nadkarni the Husband gained access to the wife's email account and attached copies of her private email between she and others (including her attorney) to show that Mother had lied to Child Protective Services, and that she'd told the children to lie to him as well - and more. Husband argued he had "no choice" but to use these emails because his "kid's safety was at stake" and that he'd accessed the accounts "in sheer panic and desperation" to protect the children. Sound familiar?
Upon discovering this Wife immediately sought temporary restraining orders pursuant to Family Code section 6320. That section permits courts to issue DV orders to stop behavior that amounts to "disturbing the peace." She alleged that she had never authorized Husband to use the account or given him the password. She also claimed that Husband was using the information to stalk her, and that his activities made her fearful because he'd beaten her badly during the marriage - and was criminally convicted of same.
While a temporary order was issued upon her application, at the hearing for permanent restraining orders her application was denied. The trial court felt that this behavior did not rise to the level of what should be restrained under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act.
Wife appealed and the trial court's interpretation of FC section 6320 was reversed. The appellate court ruled "we believe that the Legislature intended that the DVPA be broadly construed in order to accomplish the purpose of the DVPA. Therefore, the plain meaning of the phrase 'disturbing the peace' in section 6320 may include, as abuse within the meaning of the DVPA, a former husband's alleged conduct in destroying the mental or emotional calm of his former wife by accessing, reading and publicly disclosing her confidential emails." The case was ordered sent back to the trial court to hold a full hearing on the wife's claims. I imagine she won that hearing.
Family law disputants are often acting in "sheer panic" but the ends do not justify the means. You risk blowing yourself up if you attempt to use the material you obtained in any way. Destroy it. I suppose we could come up with exceptions or justifications under extreme facts, where for instance a conspiracy to commit a murder or some other major crime was uncovered, that might trump the prohibition against this type of behavior. But the value of what you have here is insufficient to justify your actions, and the evidence would likely not be admitted anyway over an objection. Even if your husband does not press the advantage you potentially give him by seeking DV orders against you, most judges (and hopefully a lawyer advising you) will question your decision-making abilities once you expose what you did. A lawyer would be ill-advised to submit these emails to the court on your behalf, not merely tarnishing his own reputation but possibly exposing himself to civil liability as well.
Resist your panic, and resist your curiosity. These disputes dial people into temporary insanity and reactivity, and often the result winds up bringing about the very thing they most fear (this dad gaining primary physical custody and reducing your custodial timeshare). There are better ways to skin this cat.
T.W. Arnold, C.F.L.S.