A lot of people will have heard of the term ‘hacking’ but that is not actually the only computer crime that is out there. In California, there are a number of state laws designed to protect computers, systems, and networks belonging to organizations, businesses, or individuals within the state. California has made a lot of computer-related activities a crime, particularly if they affect the confidentiality, use, or functionality of data, systems, the computer itself, or a network.
Those who gain access to a computer network, system, or computer, and use this to in any way change any element of it, for instance by destroying, deleting, disrupting, or altering it, can face a computer crime charge. Because computers are now so prevalent in the world and affect so many parts of people’s lives, a lot of different crimes are covered under the blanket term of ‘computer fraud’. A prosecutor will generally have to show that the defendant had the intent to deceive, defraud, or extort someone, or otherwise take control of someone’s property, money, or information. Introducing computer viruses and other forms of malware are also charged as computer crimes.
California sets itself apart by also criminalizing the copying of information and data on a computer, system, or network. This applies, for instance, to those who take the records of a business without permission, whether through hacking or as an employee who has legitimate access.
Laws and Penalties
Computer fraud is broadly covered under California Penal Code Section 502, although other sections may also apply depending on the nature of the crime. In all cases, the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor to demonstrate that the defendant had the intent to cause damage. Accidental tampering with computer elements, therefore, is rarely charged as a crime. The prosecution must also prove that the accused did not have permission to act in the way that they did.
Sentences for computer fraud can vary greatly in the state. Usually, it depends on exactly which crime was committed, how severe it was, how much losses the victim incurred, and what the criminal history of the defendant is. Under the California Penal Code, some of the crimes can be classed as misdemeanors, whereas others are felonies.
Generally speaking, however, those who unlawfully accessed, damaged, or changed a computer, system or network can be sentenced to imprisonment, pay a fine, or both. Fines usually range from between $1,000 and $10,000. Imprisonment can be in a county jail or someone may be sentenced to a state prison. Sentences are usually set at one year, 16 months, or two or three years. Furthermore, compensatory damages often have to be paid to the victim of the crime, for any losses suffered.
In some cases, those convicted of computer fraud may just be required to complete community service, or other forms of ‘alternative’ sentencing. Alternative sentences are usually only given to those who show remorse and who make it clear that it is unlikely that they will commit further crimes.
Computer Fraud Defenses
The most common defense for computer fraud is that the activity for which the accused are charged was conducted as part of their legal duties and responsibilities, and that it was done to complete their assignments. This means that no fraudulent intent was present and that it was either a mistake or a misunderstanding.
Another defense is one of mistaken identity. Because a lot of computer fraud is done virtually, it can be very difficult to determine the real person who did it. Since computer criminals are generally proficient at identity theft, mistaken identity can be an effective defense.
Lastly, some attorneys will attempt an entrapment defense. This means that the defendants committed a crime they would otherwise not have committed because they were coerced into doing so by government agents.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for computer fraud in California is currently set at seven years. This statute can be tolled however, if you are out of state or out of the country. This is common with virtual computer fraud.
California Computer Fraud Cases
- California federal court finds the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is not a misappropriation statute
- United States v. David Nosal
- ‘Spam King’ Sanford Wallace sentenced to 2 and a half years for Facebook scheme
- California man who fraudulently obtained and sold computers destined for schools and non-profits sentenced to 10 years in prison
- California court holds that an employee can be sued under the CFAA for deleting company files