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Steve Jackson Games, Inc. v. United States Secret Service

United Sates Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
36 F. 3d 457 (1994)


Steve Jackson Games, Incorporated (SJG) (plaintiff) ran an online bulletin board that SJG called BBS. BBS was operated from one of SJG’s computers. BBS allowed users to send and receive private emails. The email was stored on the BBS computer’s hard drive temporarily, until the recipient opened and read the message. The recipient could then choose to either keep the message on the BBS computer’s hard drive, or delete the message. Bell Company began investigating the unauthorized distribution of a computer file that contained information about Bell’s emergency call system. Bell alerted the United States Secret Service (defendant) about the unauthorized distribution. Bell learned that the file was available on a bulletin board operated by an SJG employee. This employee also had control of the BBS, including the ability to review and potentially delete data. The Secret Service applied for a warrant to search both SJG’s premises and the employee’s residence. The Secret Service seized the computer that operated the BBS. SJG filed suit, claiming the Secret Service had violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), among other federal statutes. The ECPA prohibits: (1) the intentional interception of electronic communications and (2) intentional, unauthorized access to stored electronic communications. The trial court found that Secret Service personnel had read and deleted private, unread emails that had been stored on the BBS computer. The trial court further found that this conduct violated the ECPA’s prohibition on intentional, unauthorized access to stored electronic communications. However, the trial court held that the Secret Service did not intercept the communications because the acquisition of the emails was not contemporaneous with their transmission. SJG appealed the second ruling, arguing that the Secret Service’s actions were an illegal intercept.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Barksdale, J.)

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