The U.S. Supreme Court Monday probed whether the conviction of a police officer for accessing a database could lead to the criminalization of a range of similar actions.
The case, Van Buren v. United States, involves whether an officer who misused his authorized access to a database should be held liable under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
The case could have implications for a wide range of computer use scenarios, from so-called helpful hackers to the alleged theft of company trade secrets. One question that came up during the argument was whether the anti-hacking law could apply to other, more everyday scenarios, like lying on a dating app.
Some members of the court questioned whether upholding the officer’s conviction would really lead to such outcomes.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said the police officer’s legal argument relied heavily on a so-called “parade of horribles.”
“But in doing that you read the provisions of this section very, very broadly,” Alito told the officer’s lawyer, Jeffrey Fisher, a law professor at Stanford Law School.
Justice Neil Gorsuch during oral argument at the high court called the case the latest in a “long line of cases” where the government has sought to expand federal criminal jurisdiction.
“I’m curious why we are back here again on a rather small state crime that is prosecutable under state law and perhaps other federal laws,” Gorsuch asked.
Eric Feigin, deputy solicitor general at the Justice Department, argued that potential fallout from the case is exaggerated, saying “the kind of misconduct” at issue in the case is “exactly the kind of misconduct” that the anti-hacking law aimed to address.
The police officer, Nathan Van Buren, was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for using an enforcement database to look up a strip club dancer’s license plate number as a favor in exchange for a loan.
Van Buren argued in his Supreme Court petition that the conviction should be overturned because he was authorized to access the police database. Lawyers for the government contend that Van Buren violated the anti-hacking law by searching the database for personal gain.
The case is: Van Buren v. United States, U.S., No. 19-783, oral argument 11/30/20.