WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday narrowed the scope of a federal law that makes it a crime to gain access to computer files without permission. With a result of 6 to 3, the court sided with a former police officer in Georgia who used his position to search license plate records for a nefarious purpose.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote the majority opinion, which included an unusual coalition that included two other judges appointed by President Donald J. Trump and the court’s three-member liberal faction.
The officer, Nathan Van Buren, agreed to search license plate records in exchange for $5,000 from a man who turned out to be an FBI informant. Although Mr. Van Buren’s job gave him access to the database, his search on that occasion violated department policy as it was not performed in connection with his duties.
Mr. Van Buren was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, a federal law that makes it unlawful to “access a computer when authorized and to use that access to obtain or change information in the computer that the visitor does not have the right to obtain or change. “
He was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Justice Barrett, writing for the majority, said Mr. Van Buren’s conduct was not a crime under the 1986 law.
- A big month. June is the peak season for Supreme Court decisions. This is the last month of the court’s annual term, and judges tend to save their biggest decisions until the end of their term.
- 4 big cases. The court is set to rule on the fate of Obamacare, as well as a case that could determine the score of laws that address election rules in the coming years. It is also working on a case involving religion and gay rights and a case on whether students can be disciplined for what they say on social media (here’s an audio report). on that subject; and this is where the public opinion stands on some of the great cases).
- See what. Approaches that Amy Coney Barrett, the newest justice, and Brett Kavanaugh, the second new justice, take. They will be important as the three liberal judges now need at least two out of six conservatives to get a majority. Before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, liberals needed only a conservative.
- Look forward. Next year’s term, which will begin in the fall, will feature cases on abortion, firearms and perhaps affirmative action, and could end up being the most important term to date under Chief Justice John Roberts.
“This provision covers people who obtain information from specific areas of a computer – such as files, folders, or databases – to which their computer access does not extend,” she wrote. “It does not include people who, like Van Buren, have unwarranted motives for obtaining the information they have available.”
Judges Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined Justice Barrett’s majority opinion.
Much of Justice Barrett’s opinion is devoted to statutory text analysis. But she also warned that a contrary ruling would make everyday behavior criminal.
“The government’s interpretation of the statute would tie criminal penalties to a large number of common computer activities,” she wrote. “If the ‘exceeding authorized access’ clause would criminalize any violation of computer use policy, millions of law-abiding citizens would be criminals.”
“Come to work,” wrote Justice Barrett. “Employers often say that computers and electronic devices can only be used for business purposes. So, when the government reads the statute, an employee sending a personal email or reading the news using her work computer is in violation of the 1986 law.
Citing a friend of the court’s summary, which also includes synopsis for The New York Times Company and other news organizations, Justice Barrett wrote that the government’s approach could “criminalize any from creating an online dating profile to using a pseudonym on Facebook.”
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas replied that “much of the federal code criminalizes general activity” and that most violations of the 1986 law would be classified as misdemeanors if they were pursued.
“The number of federal laws and regulations that cause criminal penalties can run into the hundreds of thousands,” he wrote, citing laws that punish the removal of a grain of sand from the National Mall, which breaks a lamp. in a government building or let horses graze on federal land.
Justice Thomas wrote: “It is understandable to be uncomfortable with so much criminalized behavior, but that discomfort does not give us the power to change the statute.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Chief Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Justice Thomas dissent in the case, Van Buren v. United States, number 19-783.
Justice Thomas wrote that the law often punishes those who have the right to use property for one purpose when they use it for another.
“For example, a valet can take over a person’s car to park, but he cannot take it for fun,” he wrote. “An employee authorized to sound an alarm in the event of a fire is not entitled to raise it for some other purpose, such as to delay a meeting for which he was not prepared.”
“And, to take a closer example of this, employees of a rental car company may be ‘right’ to access a computer that displays the GPS location history of a rental vehicle. and ‘use that access’ to locate the vehicle if it is reported stolen,” wrote Justice Thomas. “But it wouldn’t be natural to say that he ‘had the right’ to ‘use such access’ to spy on his ex-girlfriend.”