Family law blogs are usually not fertile grounds to write about criminal law. Yet even family lawyers are not immune from situations where our specialty crosses paths with the dark side. We have previously written about Pennsylvania’s tightly wound wiretap law, which requires that both parties consent before sound is electronically recorded. Failure to get the consent of the person recorded may be a crime. 18 Pa.C.S. 5701.
A recent article in the current issue of The Bencher, a magazine published by the American Inns of Court, reminds us that federal law addressing computer access has its own legal snag that can yield significant legal problems.
Say you are on Match.com. or even the more innocent Facebook. You are asked to describe yourself and you resort to “tall, dark and handsome,” when your honest answer would be short, pasty and homely. Or, you indicate that you are writing from your condominium on the Florida intercostal when you are typing from a trailer overlooking the Youghiogheny outside McKeesport. You are now making false statements on a website where you have promised to write only what is true. Thus, you are no longer using the site “legally.” Some Courts are holding this is a crime.
Accessing data under false pretenses or for corrupt purposes can also cause problems under what is termed the “Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.” If you use someone else’s credentials to gain access to a site, you may be violating federal law. In Van Buren v. United States, a cop was arrested and charged with violating the CFAA when he used his credentials to help a “friend” outside law enforcement identify whether a “dancer” in a nearby club was an undercover agent. Sentenced to 18 months in prison, Van Buren has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to evaluate whether this was a valid purpose of the act and the Court has agreed to hear the case. The question before that court in a formal sense is whether legal access can become a crime when it is used for corrupt purposes. The defendant had access to the database by reason of his employment, but the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals was not happy that he was paid several thousand dollars to “investigate” another law enforcement person for private purposes. The case is due to be argued on November 30, 2020, and a ruling is expected next year. However, in the meantime, read your access rules and if you are going to claim to be a Size 4, make it a point to drop a few pounds. At least then, your sentence for violating federal internet laws should be “lighter.”