Should Everyone Who Uses A Phone Or A Computer As Part Of A Crime Get A Longer Sentence?

from the so-says-the-8th-circuit dept

We've noted just how far the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) has been stretched lately. The law -- which is supposed to be used against those involved in malicious hacking -- actually breaking into computer systems and such -- keeps being used in ways totally different than intended, such as claiming that just visiting a website you weren't supposed to can now be deemed as "hacking." Michael Scott alerts us to another unintended consequence of the broad interpretation of the CFAA, involving a sex offender who got an extra 28 months on his prison sentence because he used a phone.

Now, as the article notes, if there's anyone out there who deserves a longer prison sentence, it's a sex offender who victimizes minors. But that doesn't mean we should condone stretching a computer hacking law in a ridiculous manner. In this case, because the CFAA allows increased sentencing for someone who used a computer in the commission of the crime, the judge decided that a rather standard mobile phone counts as a "computer" under the law. Even though it was a standard mobile phone, and not a smartphone or feature phone, the judge quoted Steve Wozniak in pointing out that "Everything has a computer in it nowadays."

Of course, that should be a reason why we should worry about this kind of sentencing. The idea that anyone deserves more time in prison solely because they used a mobile phone doesn't make much sense. It continues to make a mockery of the law. If the guy deserves to be in prison longer for the actual despicable crime he committed, then the law should allow such longer sentences. But the courts shouldn't twist the CFAA to accomplish that goal.
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Filed Under: computers, crime, sentencing

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  1. icon
    leichter (profile), 23 Feb 2011 @ 6:06pm

    Why let the facts get in the way of a good complaint?

    Judges are supposed to follow the law as written - whether they like it or not. (There are out's for them in some cases, but usually not.) The decision they rendered here was based on the language Congress handed them: The court relied on the “exceedingly broad language” of § 1030(e)(1) that “’[i]f a device is “an electronic … or other high speed data processing device performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions,’ it is a computer.” The court also held that “there is nothing in the statutory definition that purports to exclude devices because they lack a connection to the Internet.”

    Congress also wrote the law that, for the most part, takes away a judge's discretion in deciding on the sentence. One can make some arguments for this (it increases predictability, it helps ensure that rich white kids don't get shorter sentences for the same crime as poor black kids); one can make political arguments for it (people feel judges are too lenient and have chosen, through their elected representatives, to be tougher on criminals); and one can make very good arguments *against* it (basically, little in real life is cut and dried and trying to pin things down too much leads to miscarriages of justice). Nevertheless, this is the law we have on the books today.

    I'd be the first to agree that it's absurd to enhance a sentence based on "use of a computer" when that "computer" is a cell phone. Hell, I'd even agree that enhanced sentencing for using a computer on the Internet is a bad idea. But I disagree that this is an indictment of the judges involved. It's an indictment of Congress, which passed bad laws.

    The first part of fixing a problem is putting the blame in the right place.

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