Federal Computer Hacking (18 USC 1030) Is Not Always What It Seems: Client Gets Federal Misdemeanor and No Jail

Having the FBI knocking on your door at 6 in the morning can be the most frightening experience in your life.  They enter, start searching through your most personal belongings, take your papers, records, phone and computers and leave.  This is what happened to one of Saland Law’s recent clients (we’ll call him “Dave” – not his real name).  He reached out to us a short time afterwards, when we put our experience and knowledge to work.  After some initial investigation, we discovered that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York was investigating an international computer hacking ring and that they believed Dave was involved.  They initially intended on charging Dave with the serious felony of Computer Hacking under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1030(a)(i), which carries a potential sentence of 10 years in federal prison.

After a diligent and thorough examination of the evidence and Dave’s background, it became clear that Dave was not an international computer hacker.  Rather, Dave was a down on his luck twenty-something, who had a troubled past.  Dave had a difficult upbringing, growing up in a violence-filled household, child welfare agents constantly around.     Dave witnessed abuse of his mother by his father and his sister’s suicide attempt.  Dave sunk into deep depression.  He spent more and more time and energy on the computer, eventually suffering an addiction to computer gaming and usage.  Dave hit rock bottom when he wandered onto a website that promoted computer hacking – it described how to do it, and sold software that enabled the hacking.  In a weak moment, Dave purchased the software and began to use it to look at other’s computer files, including his girlfriends.  Dave wasn’t proud of his conduct, but because of his addiction, he couldn’t help himself.  Dave didn’t try to steal credit card information, or his victim’s identification.  Rather, he was only falling deeper into his computer addiction.

Dave realized how low he had fallen, and sought the help of mental health professionals; but the addiction was too powerful.  Ultimately, his reckless behavior resulted in that knock on his door at 6 am.  It was the FBI coming to look at his computers.  The agents believed Dave was a typical computer hacker – in it for the money, the prestige and the image.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  But would the feds understand?  Or care?

The attorneys at Saland Law quickly went to work to portray an accurate picture of Dave in the minds of the agents and the Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to the case.  As we said earlier, Dave was facing a federal felony and 10 years in prison for “knowingly accessing a protected computer without authorization, with intent to defraud and recklessly causing damage to that computer.”  See 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(5)(A).

Dave had an uphill battle.  Usually once FBI agents come to your door with a search warrant, their minds are made up – they believe you are guilty of a felony and are hard pressed to change their minds.

But Dave was lucky.  Strong advocacy, and some willing law enforcement officers, put Dave in a better place.  We were able to tell Dave’s story to the agents and the prosecutors in a way that made them understand that Dave was not an international computer hacker.  That he was a troubled man, who was worth saving.  That hard work and perseverance paid off, as we were able to convince the prosecutor not to charge Dave with a felony, but rather, with the lesser crime (all along Dave fully acknowledged and admitted to his wrongful conduct) of the misdemeanor of computer hacking under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1030(a)(2).

This was a huge victory, as no other defendant in the entire case (approximately 20 individuals were charged) was allowed to plead to a misdemeanor.  It also meant Dave faced a maximum of 1 year in jail instead of 10.  Moreover, at sentencing, we were able to convince the Judge that jail was not an appropriate place for someone like Dave, and just before Christmas last year, Dave was sentenced to 1 year of probation – the lowest sentence possible under the circumstances.  In addition, this sentence may very well allow Dave to stay living in the United States.  You see, Dave was brought to New York by his parents, when he was 2, from a South American country – a place he has not been back to since.  His entire life is here in New York.  A felony conviction and prison sentence would have almost certainly resulted in his deportation from his home to a place he has never seen and where he doesn’t even speak the language.  But the misdemeanor gives him hope of remaining with his entire family here in New York.

The ability to plead to a federal misdemeanor was not only unique in this particular case, it is extremely rare in any case, particularly one brought by the Southern District of New York.

Dave is now continuing his mental health treatment, is looking for work again, and is well on his way to recovery.

It just goes to show you that life does not end with that knock on your door at 6am.  Hard work, knowledge of the system, and an ability to advocate for a client can make all the difference.

The attorneys at Saland Law understand the difficulties people face in life.  Let our hard work, determination and knowledge work for you when you are looking for someone to represent you in a federal criminal computer hacking investigation or prosecution.

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