Trump Supreme Court Justices Side with Liberals In Landmark Computer Hacking Case

Written by Carmine Sabia

OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion




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In a landmark Supreme Court decision that had conservatives Justices nominated by President Donald Trump with liberal Justices, the court limited what can be prosecuted as computer fraud.

The decision overturned a conviction of a former Georgia police who was charged with misusing a government database to discover if a supposed stripper was actually an undercover agent, Reuters reported.

The justices, in a 6-3 decision authored by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, sided with former Cumming, Georgia police sergeant Nathan Van Buren in an appeal of his conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, reversing a lower court ruling that had upheld a jury verdict against him.

The justices agreed that Van Buren could not be convicted for misusing the database to perform the investigation because the information had been available to him as part of his job. Van Buren was charged after a 2015 FBI sting operation.

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

Trump Justices Barret, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch joined liberals Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer.

Dissenting from the opinion were conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

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The case was centered on a computer hacking law from 1986 which prevents accessing a computer sans authorization or going beyond authorized access.

The Biden Justice Department said that the law “aims directly at ‘insider’ conduct” like Van Buren’s “forbidden use of his law enforcement credentials.”

“Using a police database to obtain information in circumstances where that use is expressly forbidden is a crime,” Justice Thomas said in the dissent.

Suffering financial difficulties, Van Buren had asked a local man, Andrew Albo, for money. Albo alerted law enforcement authorities and the FBI devised a sting in which Albo offered to pay Van Buren money to run a search for a license plate on a law enforcement database. Albo’s fictional story was that he wanted to find out if a local stripper was an undercover cop.

Albo gave Van Buren $6,000 and Van Buren conducted the search. A federal jury convicted Van Buren in 2017 of violating the computer fraud law and a separate count of honest services fraud. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 upheld the computer fraud conviction, but ordered a retrial on the other charge.

“In 6-3 vote, Supreme Court narrows scope of Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, landmark cybercrime law, ruling that it doesn’t cover situations where people who are authorized to access a computer system do so for improper reasons,” Politico Cybersecurity reporter Eric Geller said on Twitter.

“This ruling represents a win for a coalition of civil-liberties advocates and security researchers who had warned SCOTUS that upholding the government’s broad view of the CFAA would risk criminalizing innocuous behavior like checking Facebook at work,” he said.

Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern speculated that the age of the Trump justices played a role in their siding with the liberals on this case.

“I would wager that the Trump judges sided with the liberals because they’re relatively young, understand computers decently well, and recognize that the government’s preferred reading of the CFAA would criminalize a stunning range of conduct unworthy of federal prosecution,” he said.

The decision came on the same week that conservative and liberal justices sided with each other in a unanimous decision regarding asylum seekers needing to prove their claims.