The Supreme Court has made Cannibal Cops of us all.
It all came down to the meaning of the word “so.” Former Cumming, Ga. Police Sgt. Nathan Van Buren had been sentenced to shaking down someone he didn’t know was an FBI mole to run license plate checks. He was convicted under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. That law makes a criminal of anyone who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access.”
On appeal, van Buren’s lawyers argued that the act’s phrase about someone being “entitled so to obtain” should be construed broadly. Since van Buren was otherwise entitled to use the police database, his lawyers argued, he didn’t exceed his authority. Prosecutors argued that “so” can only mean “all of the circumstances that might qualify a person’s right to obtain information.”
(Sidebar: SCOTUS could really make a friend of me if it upheld the death penalty for anyone who begins their sentences, “Soooooo…”)
Writing for the majority, Justice Amy Coney Barrett waived prosecutors away.
“The Government’s interpretation of the ‘exceeds authorized access’ clause would attach criminal penalties to a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority. “On the Government’s reading, an employee who sends a personal e-mail or reads the news using a work computer has violated the CFAA.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Charles Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
The decision resolves a long-standing split among the nation’s appellate circuits. Judges in the Second, Fourth and 11th Circuits had all taken the same broad view of the Act that the Supremes later did. The Second Circuit, in fact, had given the first victory to Galberto Valle, whom you might remember as the far-famed “Cannibal Cop.”
Valle had been convicted of using his department’s databases to hunt up potential victims for a lurid cannibal fetish site he had joined. A divided appellate panel gave him his first victory, ruling that Sec. 1003(a) of the Act was too ambiguously written.
Valle has been getting his vengeance ever since. Earlier this year, a rogue SEC examiner named Michael Cohn more-or-less beat the wrap on charges that he leaked details of government investigations to sweeten his job prospects at GPB Capital. Cohn has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was given a few months home confinement. Perhaps worse, he’s no longer a viable witness against his old bosses at GPB, who are now at the center of multiple fraud cases, civil and criminal.
Taste of victory
Civil libertarians laid out a feast on hearing the news about the van Buren decision. I’m a little more squeamish.
It’s great that our Cruel Masters can’t actually make criminals of us for using our work computers for porn, poker or, like, personal blogs. (You shouldn’t read that last part, Adam.) But, as you may have noticed, it’s another free pass to cops. They’ve already made themselves fat on our backs.
Anyway, bon appetite.