U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Barrett parts ways with 3 conservative justices in ruling on reach of computer fraud law

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act doesn’t apply to a police officer’s search of a license plate database for an acquaintance who paid him more than $5,000.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the majority opinion, joined by the high court’s three liberal justices, along with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

“Not the 6-3 grouping I would have expected,” wrote one commenter on SCOTUSblog.

The court ruled in the case of Cumming, Georgia, police sergeant, Nathan Van Buren, who searched the license plate database for an acquaintance who wanted to find out whether a stripper was an undercover police officer. The person who paid Van Buren to conduct the search was part of an FBI sting.

Van Buren had the right to search the database but not for purposes unrelated to law enforcement. At issue was whether Van Buren violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a crime “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.”

Those who violate the law may face civil liability and criminal penalties ranging from fines to up to 10 years in prison.

Van Buren didn’t violate the law, the majority said.

“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,” Barrett wrote. “It does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them.”

If the government’s interpretation of the law prevailed, “the statute would attach criminal penalties to a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity,” Barrett wrote.

“Take the workplace. Employers commonly state that computers and electronic devices can be used only for business purposes. So on the government’s reading of the statute, an employee who sends a personal email or reads the news using her work computer has violated the CFAA,” she wrote.

Barrett also noted the argument by amici that the government’s reading of the law would “criminalize everything from embellishing an online-dating profile to using a pseudonym on Facebook.”

Thomas’ dissent said “an ordinary reader of the English language” would side with the government’s interpretation of the law.

“Both the common law and statutory law have long punished those who exceed the scope of consent when using property that belongs to others,” Thomas wrote. “A valet, for example, may take possession of a person’s car to park it, but he cannot take it for a joyride. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act extends that principle to computers and information.”

The case is Van Buren v. United States. Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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