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Westport, Conn., divorce lawyer Nancy Segore-Freshman said her client, a nursery school teacher, is afraid to even touch her computer, for fear of being in contempt of court. Greenwich, Conn., urologist Jeffrey Ranta is convinced there’s something somewhere in his wife’s laptop that would help his divorce case. And now he may have the chance to prove it. Stamford Superior Court Judge Kevin Tierney recently took the highly unusual step of ordering Mary Ranta to stop using her laptop altogether and immediately turn it over to the court clerk’s office. It’s the first computer seizure he’s ever ordered, the judge confirmed in an interview last week. Tierney said his goal was to preserve electronic data for discovery. But Mary Ranta and her Westport, Conn., divorce lawyer Nancy Segore-Freshman contend the order is overbroad and burdensome. Segore-Freshman said her client, a nursery school teacher, is afraid to even touch the computer, for fear of being in contempt of court. To appease the wife, Tierney directed Jeffrey Ranta to purchase a duplicate computer for her, along with copies of all the software programs currently on the laptop. Mary Ranta, in turn, must make a list of all the applications she has on the computer. But even turning her laptop on to find out the names of the software programs could potentially subject her to Tierney’s wrath. The judge’s four-page order demands she “stop using, accessing, turning on, powering, copying, deleting, removing or uninstalling any programs, files or folders, or booting up” her year-old Gateway. Under the Feb. 24 order, the wife’s receipt of the replacement laptop “will occur simultaneously with the placement of the [original] laptop computer and computer storage devices into evidence” with the court clerk. It’s a catch-22. Because the husband has not provided the replacement, the wife still has the laptop at home, Segore-Freshman said last week. E-MAILS LEGALLY RELEVANT The focus of inquiry appears to be on Mary Ranta’s e-mail records, and not financial records or other materials. The order instructs the parties to choose a mutually agreeable computer expert. If they can’t, each side is to suggest two candidates, and the judge will select the finalist. In open court, the computer expert is expected to start the computer and locate the files needed for discovery. If the wife objects on grounds of attorney-client privilege or for other reasons, the investigation is to continue in the judge’s chambers. Segore-Freshman, who has communicated with her client by e-mail, is directed to prepare a “privilege log” listing of documents that should be exempt from discovery. She said the order won’t let her client keep her digital photo album or the nursery school class planning ideas she gathers and stores on the computer. While this may be the first laptop ordered into court custody in a Connecticut divorce case, it won’t be the last, Segore-Freshman predicted. “Computers are becoming more and more a part of peoples’ lives,” she noted. They’re also becoming the receptacle of large amounts of information upon which civil claims could rest. The husband’s lawyer, Thomas D. Colin of the Greenwich family law boutique Schoonmaker, George & Colin, declined to comment on the case. In one of the few reported divorce disputes where e-mails have been in hot contention, a spouse was attempting to prove the other’s marital infidelity through love letters. That was the issue in the 2001 New Jersey Chancery Court case of White v. White, in which the wife hired a computer expert to find and print out romantic e-mails from her husband’s computer at home. The husband was unaware of the wife’s exploration until he was being deposed, and objected to her using the e-mails as a violation of wiretap laws and invasion of privacy. In the White case, the husband was also unaware that he had set his America Online to save all incoming mail to his “Personal Filing Cabinet” space on his hard drive. He could have made it password-protected, but did not, and the computer expert was able to locate and copy the e-mail correspondence directly from the hard drive memory of the family computer. The judge ruled that the wiretap statute only covers messages intercepted in transmission — not messages stored after transmission — and therefore did not apply. And since the computer was in a family room, and was used by the wife and others, the husband’s claim of invasion of privacy was denied, as well. According to the allegations in Ranta v. Ranta, the husband stopped living in the marital home to pursue another relationship about a year ago, near the time of the computer’s purchase. Segore-Freshman noted that, in Connecticut, it’s legally relevant if one partner is responsible for the breakdown of the marriage. Her client contends the husband was at fault. According to Segore-Freshman, the computer won’t contain legally relevant information implicating the wife, because it only has e-mail created after the marriage broke down. What is legally relevant is who caused the marital breakdown in the first place, she said. At press time, the parties were considering a possible settlement. But even under such a pact, the husband still would be seeking the wife’s laptop, according to Segore-Freshman.

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