If law enforcement wanted to read your letters or other paper correspondence, they have to get a warrant. But in this age of technology, you don't have the same protections. If your email has already been opened or is more than 6 months old, law enforcement and other government agencies can read them.
"The courts have said that the laws are very confusing and have permitted the government to search your emails held by providers without a warrant," said Francisco Loboco with the American Civil Liberties Union.
While government investigators generally look at email for evidence of criminal activity, that's not always the case. Email privacy became a national debate after CIA Director David Petraeus resigned over an extramarital affair. Privacy groups asked if the CIA can't keep the FBI from reading Petraeus' private email, what protections do ordinary people have?
State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) wants to clearly define the line in California. Electronic communications should be no different than paper communications: They're all private.
"All we're saying is you need to go to court, make the case that there is a reasonable cause to believe that some illegal activity is ongoing," said Leno.
Drafted with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Leno proposal would require state and local government agents to get a warrant before asking email service providers, such as Google and Yahoo, to hand over your emails.
The companies would then have to tell you they did. Some providers already require a warrant, but not all. This wouldn't apply to the federal government. No formal opposition yet, but in the past, law enforcement had concerns the warrant process could slow down investigations.
Leno last year tried to stop police from being able to read emails and text messages from your cellphone or smartphone upon your arrest. But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed that bill. It's unclear what he would do with this proposal.