The Supreme Court on Thursday issued its first interpretation of a computer hacking law that’s been criticized as being overly broad, with the three Trump appointees siding with the court’s liberal wing.
In the 6-3 ruling, a majority of the court said a person violates the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act only when he or she accesses “files, folders, or databases — that are off limits,” not when someone conducts an unauthorized search on a database for which he or she has legal access.
At issue in the case was a police officer’s unauthorized search of an official computer database in exchange for money.
Nathan Van Buren, a former Georgia police sergeant, became acquainted with an FBI informant. The informant asked Van Buren to search his patrol car computer for a license plate number to see if the driver — a woman from a strip club — was an undercover cop.
The officer was promised $5,000 in exchange for the search and information.
He followed through with the search and, as a result, was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a jury.
Van Buren unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. But on Thursday, the high court sided with him.
He argued that the computer hacking law did not cover him because he had legal access to the database he searched.
The government, though, argued that the law forbids individuals from searching a database for information that one “is not entitled to obtain.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee, wrote the majority opinion, saying the law applies only to people who search areas, such as a file of a computer, that they do not have the authority to access.
“It does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them,” Justice Barrett wrote.
The court’s three Democratic appointees joined Justice Barrett’s opinion, as did Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, the high court’s two other Trump appointees.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito and Clarence Thomas — all Republican appointees — sided with the government and against Van Buren.
Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that a valet may have permission to take a car and park it, but the valet does not have authority to take the vehicle for a joy ride.
“The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act extends that principle to computers and information,” Justice Thomas wrote. “Both the common law and statutory law have long punished those who exceed the scope of consent when using property that belongs to others.”
Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined his dissent.
Congress enacted the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 1986.