United States v. Hamilton, No. 11-4847

Decided: December 13, 2012

On appeal, Phillip A. Hamilton challenged his conviction for federal program bribery and extortion under color of official right. Hamilton also challenged his sentence of 114 months’ imprisonment. The Court of Appeals affirmed both Hamilton’s conviction and sentence.

From 1988 to 2009, Hamilton served as a state legislator. During this time, Hamilton also worked as an administrator and a part-time consultant for the Newport News public schools system. In August 2006, Hamilton sought a meeting with Old Dominion University (ODU) officials to discuss state funding for a new Center for Teacher Quality (the “Center”). Immediately prior to the meeting, Hamilton and his wife exchanged emails discussing their financial difficulties. Hamilton hoped that the new Center would employ Hamilton and that he would make about $6,000 a month. These emails were sent to and from Hamilton’s public school workplace computer, through his work email account. About four months later, Hamilton emailed ODU officials and explained that because the Governor’s budget did not include money for the Center, Hamilton had proposed a budget amendment to secure $1 million in funding. Hamilton also reiterated his desire have a salary-based position with the Center. Thereafter, Hamilton introduced legislation for the first of two $500,000 appropriations for the Center. Both appropriations ultimately passed. Hamilton was then selected as Center Director at a salary of $40,000 per year. However, he had never filed an application for the position, and an ODU official later testified that Hamilton would have never been offered the position if not for his legislative assistance. Based on this evidence, the Government charged Hamilton with bribery concerning federal program funds in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(B) (2006), and extortion under color of official right in violation of 18 U.S.C.§ 1951. The jury convicted Hamilton of both crimes, and the district court sentenced him to 114 months. Hamilton then filed a timely appeal.

Hamilton’s main argument on appeal challenged the district court’s admission into evidence of the emails he sent to and received from his wife. Hamilton essentially argued that the admission of the emails violated the marital communications privilege. The Court of Appeals first noted that under the general rule, private communications between spouses are presumptively confidential and thus privileged. However, the court also noted this privilege can be waived by a “voluntary disclosure.” The Government argued that Hamilton waived his privilege by communicating with his wife on his workplace computer, through his work email account, and subsequently failing to safeguard the emails. The court agreed and held that Hamilton waived any privilege he had over the emails. The court noted that the school district’s computer use policy expressly provided that users have “no expectation of privacy in their use of the Computer System.” The court also noted that Hamilton electronically signed forms accepting the policy and that he had to acknowledge the policy by pressing a key to proceed to the next step of the log-on process every time he logged into his workplace computer.

Full Opinion

-Graham Mitchell

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