SJC upholds investigative e-mail searches, with limits

Dr. Punyamurtula Kishore listens during his arraignment for allegedly running a kickback scheme and fraudulently billing MassHealth nearly $3.8 million. Kishore was taken into custody overnight pending a bail hearing. JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE (Metro, Ballou))
The Medicaid-fraud case against Dr. Punyamurtula Kishore (standing) prompted Monday’s ruling.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

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The state’s highest court Monday ruled that prosecutors may scour the e-mails of defendants, but also supported safeguards designed to protect the privacy privilege long granted lawyers and their clients.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling, a victory for Attorney General Martha Coakley, upheld the right of state prosecutors to search the e-mail of a Brookline doctor after he was indicted in 2011 on charges of defrauding Medicaid of millions of dollars.

“This ruling upholds the investigatory power of our office to examine e-mails for evidence of criminal conduct while using a court-approved process to sort out any e-mails that may involve attorney-client communication,” said Brad Puffer, spokesman for Coakley.

But some lawyers voiced concerns that if the protocols laid out by the courts are not followed precisely, access to a defendant’s e-mail could disturb the delicate balance between a prosecutor’s responsibility to conduct a thorough criminal investigation and a defendant’s constitutional rights.

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