In a unanimous ruling, the Virginia Supreme Court on Friday struck down one of the country's first anti-spam laws and, as a result, has overturned the conviction of a prolific spammer.
The court said the law was too broad because even though it properly addressed the constraint of mass emails having commercial content, it also barred anonymous emails containing content protected by the First Amendment .
In the ruling, Justice G. Steven Agee said the law was "unconstitutionally overbroad on its face because it prohibits the anonymous transmission of all unsolicited bulk emails, including those containing political, religious or other speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."
In response, the attorney general of Virginia said in a statement that the court had "erroneously ruled that one has a right to deceptively enter somebody else's private property for purposes of distributing his unsolicited fraudulent emails...We will take this issue directly to the Supreme Court of the United States."
The ruling also means that Jeremy Jaynes, one of the world's most abundant spammers, goes free. Jaynes was convicted in 2005 of sending millions of emails in a scheme that made him the eighth most prolific spammer anywhere -- and a millionaire. He had been sentenced to nine years in prison.
Before it was overturned, the Virginia law had prohibited routing falsification to hide a bulk mailer's identity. Any violation was a felony if the spam volume exceeded 10,000 messages per day or one million every year. In just one day, Jaynes uploaded some 7.7 million email messages, mostly about picking penny stocks or learning how to work from home.
At his trial, Jaynes' business was revealed to be a real money-maker. The prosecutors said he was pulling in $750,000 per month. In a typical month, they said he might receive 10,000 to 17,000 credit card orders, and claimed Jaynes had a net worth of $24 million. Jaynes got lists of some 92 million email addresses from a stolen database of AOL customers.
Sending commercial spam is still illegal under federal law through the CAN-SPAM Act, but because that legislation was adopted after Jaynes sent the emails, it could not be applied.