California Computer Crimes Laws
Overview of California Computer Crimes Laws
While many may be familiar with "hacking" from watching their favorite television shows or reading popular crime novels, a broader variety of activities may qualify as computer crimes. California state laws include provisions intended to protect the computers, computer systems, and computer networks of individuals, businesses, and organizations across the state. California criminalizes many computer-related activities that affect the functionality, use, or confidentiality of computer data, computers, computer systems, and computer networks.
An individual who accesses a computer, computer system, or computer network and alters, disrupts, deletes, destroys, or otherwise changes any part may be charged with a computer crime. The applicable type of computer crime depends on the defendant's purpose for engaging in the unlawful access. For example, a prosecutor may need to show that the defendant wanted to execute a plan for deception, fraud, or extortion, or to take control of information, money, or property that did not belong to the defendant.
Other computer crimes focus on access made to introduce a computer virus or contaminant for harmful purposes.
In addition, California state laws criminalize the unauthorized taking or copying of data and information from a computer, computer system, or computer network. For example, this type of computer crime might apply to an individual who takes computerized business records from an organization or an employee who copies work product from an employer's computer network without permission.
For each computer crime, a prosecutor must prove that the defendant "knowingly" engaged in the computer-related act. If the defendant performed the act accidentally, it may be more difficult to establish the elements of the charged crime. In addition, a prosecutor must show that the defendant acted without permission or authorization.
Defenses to Computer Crime Charges
- Activity conducted within the scope of lawful employment as duties or tasks reasonably necessary to complete a work assignment
Penalties and Sentences
California state laws impose varying sentences for computer crimes. The punishment often depends on the type of computer crime, the severity of the violation, the value of any losses suffered by the victim, and the defendant's prior criminal history. The California Penal Code designates specific crimes as misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the type of criminal activity and the injury suffered, if any, by the victim. In addition, computer crimes performed as part of other types of crimes may require prosecution for those criminal activities.
In general, computer crimes that involve unlawfully accessing, changing, or damaging a computer, computer system, or computer network may result in a fine, imprisonment, or both. The maximum fine required may range from $1,000 to $10,000. The term of imprisonment may be served in county jail or state prison and last for a term of one year, sixteen months, two years, or three years. A court might also order compensatory damages to be paid to a victim who suffered damages or losses resulting from the computer crime.
In addition, California law permits the courts to require community service or accept other forms of alternate sentencing. In order to receive an alternate sentence, a defendant convicted of a computer crime would need to demonstrate remorse and show the court that future crimes are unlikely.
California Computer Crimes Statute
California Penal Code Section 502 (scroll down for section)
Note: State laws are constantly changing -- please contact an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.