It can be very tempting to look at someone’s emails, Facebook, Instagram messages, texts, or other private data without permission. Still, unauthorized access of another person or company’s computer, electronic data, or computer network without permission is a crime in California. It doesn’t matter if you were trying to commit a crime, such as fraud or extortion, or just trying to see if your partner is cheating on you. You can fight and win against this computer crime, but you need to call a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.
Unauthorized Computer Access: 502(c) (PC)
The Unauthorized Computer Access and Fraud Act, covered by California Penal Code section 502(c) (PC), is very comprehensive and encompasses everything from industrial espionage to unauthorized logging on to someone else’s computer. A few activities that would be illegal under 502(c) (PC) include:
- logging into a company’s computer system to change your hourly wage on their payroll software
- hacking into a computer network or system to access shopper credit card information for fraud purposes
- Releasing a computer contaminant such as a virus or worm into a system, network, or internet domain
- breaking into a friend’s Facebook profile to see if they have been saying nasty things about you
You could even be charged if you weren’t the one who actually broke into the system, but helped someone else do so. For example, if you work for a company’s computer services department and have access to login information and you provide someone your password knowing they will use the information to commit a crime, you would also be guilty of breaking the law. If you feel you have a valid reason to access someone’s computer system or network without direct permission, a lawyer can help evaluate whether or not the activity would be a criminal offense under the law.
Penalties for Criminal Hacking in California
Unauthorized computer access crimes in California are a wobbler, meaning they can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. A felony charge carries a sentence of up to 3 years imprisonment and a fine of $10,000, while a misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in county jail and a fine of $5,000. A lawyer can help you decide if it is better to fight the charges or to work on a plea bargain to minimize your potential sentence.
It is common for those charged with illegally accessing data from a computer to face other white collar crime charges. Common charges filed alongside hacking include credit card fraud, theft, extortion, embezzlement and identity theft.
Defenses to Computer Hacking Crimes
It is up to the prosecution to prove that you violated the state’s unauthorized computer services law. Showing someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt can often be difficult in computer crime cases. To prove unauthorized computer access occurred, they must show that you knowingly and without permission accessed a computer system or network. It can often be challenging for a district attorney to show that someone didn’t take a particular action on accident or that they did not actually have permission to access the system. What you say to the police could be used as evidence that you acted knowingly and without permission, so avoid answering any questions without your criminal defense attorney present.
Even when there is no question about the defendant’s guilt, if the police illegally searched or seized their property, this could prove grounds to have the evidence suppressed and the charges dropped. In some cases, a defendant’s best option is to have their lawyer negotiate a criminal law plea bargain to minimize the charges and penalties they face.
If you have been accused of illegally accessing someone’s computer or computer data without permission, please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a free consultation with top criminal defense attorney Peter M. Liss.