U.S. Supreme Court limits reach of federal computer fraud law

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FILE PHOTO: People walk past the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2021. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

June 3, 2021

By Andrew Chung

-The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday limited the type of conduct that can be prosecuted under a federal computer fraud law, overturning a former Georgia police officer’s conviction for misusing a government database to investigate whether a purported local stripper was an undercover cop.

The justices, in a 6-3 decision authored by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, sided with former Cumming, Georgia police sergeant Nathan Van Buren in an appeal of his conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, reversing a lower court ruling that had upheld a jury verdict against him.

The justices agreed that Van Buren could not be convicted for misusing the database to perform the investigation because the information had been available to him as part of his job. Van Buren was charged after a 2015 FBI sting operation.

“This provision covers those who obtain information from particular areas in the computer – such as files, folders or databases – to which their computer access does not extend. It does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them,” Barrett wrote in the ruling. 

Three of the court’s conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, dissented from the ruling.

The dispute centered on a 1986 U.S. law meant to target hacking and related computer crimes. The law prohibits accessing a computer without authorization and also exceeding authorized access.

At issue was whether a person with authority to access a computer can be guilty of fraud for then misusing it. Van Buren had argued that the law targets only those with no right whatsoever to access the computer, whereas he was entitled to use the law enforcement database, even if it was for an inappropriate reason.

The U.S. Justice Department, in defending the conviction, argued that the law “aims directly at ‘insider’ conduct” like Van Buren’s “forbidden use of his law enforcement credentials.”

The dissenting justices had a different interpretation of the law’s text, finding that Van Buren’s actions were illegal because he was not entitled to the information he was otherwise authorized to access.

“Using a police database to obtain information in circumstances where that use is expressly forbidden is a crime,” Thomas wrote in his dissent.

Former President Donald Trump’s three conservative appointees to the court – Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch – were joined by the three liberal justices in the ruling.

Suffering financial difficulties, Van Buren had asked a local man, Andrew Albo, for money. Albo alerted law enforcement authorities and the FBI devised a sting in which Albo offered to pay Van Buren money to run a search for a license plate on a law enforcement database. Albo’s fictional story was that he wanted to find out if a local stripper was an undercover cop.

Albo gave Van Buren $6,000 and Van Buren conducted the search. A federal jury convicted Van Buren in 2017 of violating the computer fraud law and a separate count of honest services fraud. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 upheld the computer fraud conviction, but ordered a retrial on the other charge.

Van Buren told the justices that an overly broad view of the law would transform everyday activities into a federal crime – everything from filling out a college basketball tournament bracket while at work to posting an item on the wrong category on the Craigslist advertising website.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)





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