April 10, 2013 at 4:47 PM ET
The IRS could be reading your emails without a warrant, according to newly released documents obtained by the ACLU under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The civil liberties organization shared the documents Wednesday, saying that its review of IRS Criminal Tax Division manuals and memos show that the agency is not always following a 2010 appellate court ruling that the government must obtain a warrant before ordering email providers to turn over messages.
In the case, the United States v. Warshak, government investigators said they had read 27,000 emails without getting a search warrant first. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled Dec. 10, 2010, threw out the emails as evidence.
As NBC's Bob Sullivan wrote last summer, "In the aftermath of the Warshak case, the Internal Revenue Service told its investigators that they should not try to obtain emails without a court order, but in doing so it hinted that other warrantless email searches had been conducted in the past."
NBC News contacted the IRS Wednesday for comment, and will update this story when we hear back.
Nathan Freed Wessler, attorney for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, wrote on the ACLU blog Wednesday that the IRS has yet to tell the public "whether it is following Warshak everywhere in the country, or only within the Sixth Circuit."
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals' jurisdiction covers appeals made in the states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as those from the U.S. Tax Court and "certain federal administrative agencies where the non-governmental parties are from the states that make up the Sixth Circuit," according to the court.
"The documents the ACLU obtained make clear that, before Warshak, it was the policy of the IRS to read people’s email without getting a warrant," Wessler wrote. "Not only that, but the IRS believed that the Fourth Amendment" — which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures —"did not apply to email at all."
The IRS provided the ACLU with 247 page of records, Wessler wrote, and while those records don't answer the question "point blank" of whether the IRS is seeking warrants for emails, the documents "suggest otherwise."
The agency, he said, "should tell the public whether it always gets a warrant to access email and other private communications in the course of criminal investigations. And if the agency does not get a warrant, it should change its policy to always require one."
Updated, 8:15 p.m. ET Thursday: In a statement to NBC News Thursday, the IRS said: "Respecting taxpayer rights and taxpayer privacy are cornerstone principles for the IRS. Our job is to administer the nation's tax laws, and we do so in a way that follows the law and treats taxpayers with respect."