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What Types of State Criminal and Related Consequences Can Result From Computer-Related Crimes?

 Posted on October 18, 2019 in Criminal Defense

Milwaukee, WI criminal defense lawyer for computer crimesBy Patrick Knight, Ray Dall’Osto & Jason Luczak

Computer and digital technology is constantly changing and ever-expanding. As a result, certain types of activities that might not seem problematic at the time could end up causing serious legal problems. State laws governing theft, and its civil cousins misappropriation and conversion, have expanded to include unauthorized possession, use and misuse of computers and digital information, the internet, use of identity, and capturing and sharing images.  

Internet crimes are ever-increasing and the definitions applied and consequences change rapidly, with the sentences more and more retributive. Known collectively as computer crime laws, these statutes cover a wide scope of activities, and violations of these laws can result in a broad range of criminal penalties. In addition to criminal charges, these crimes and activities can also form the basis for restitution claims and large money damage lawsuits, which include punitive and treble damages.

Some Types of Computer Crimes

We have all heard of “hacking,” or breaking into a computer system with the intention of stealing information or harming a computer network. However, there are many computer crimes that are much less familiar; in some cases, the accused may not even realize the activity is illegal.

A study cited by the Washington Post found that more than half of all employees take with them proprietary data, either knowingly or unwittingly, when they leave a company. This is not surprising, given the ubiquity of computers, smartphones, and tablets in the workplace, as well as the ever-greater frequency of job changes in the professional market. However, it does expose them to potential criminal and civil liability.

Some other examples of common computer crimes include:

  • Improper access of a computer, system, or network
  • Introducing a virus or other malware to a computer system
  • Using a computer with intent to commit fraud
  • Copying or retaining possession of digital information of another
  • Interfering with someone else's computer access or use
  • Using encryption to assist in a crime
  • Cyberbullying
  • Falsifying the source information of email communication
  • Misuse or unauthorized use of identifying information of another

In many states, including Wisconsin, some of the above acts are punishable under existing criminal laws. For example, there is no electronic-device-specific state statute pertaining to cyberbullying, but it can be prosecuted under existing Wisconsin laws, including those related to harassment, stalking, or unlawful use of a phone or computer.

Parallel federal criminal laws on the same subjects add to the complexity of these cases.

In Wisconsin, crimes that are not covered by other criminal legal statutes may be prosecuted under computer-specific laws, two categories of which include:

Computer Data and Programs

In Wisconsin, it is a crime for anyone to “willfully, knowingly and without authorization:”

  • Modify, destroy, access, take, copy, or use computer data; or
  • Intentionally cause an interruption in service by sending messages or data to a computer or a computer program or network that exceeds the target’s processing capacity.  

These acts can result in being charged with felony offenses, including Class I and Class F felonies that carry with them the potential of state prison, jail, probation, and substantial fines.

Computers, Computer Equipment, or Supplies

Anyone who “knowingly and without authorization” modifies, destroys, accesses, takes, copies, or uses computer equipment or supplies may be charged with a variety of felonies or a Class A misdemeanor. Felony charges may apply:

  • If the offense was committed with the intent of defrauding another person or illegally obtaining property (Class I felony)
  • If the damage to the computer, network equipment, or other related supplies is more than $2,500 (Class H felony)
  • If the offense put another person at risk of death or bodily harm (Class F felony)

These classes of felonies carry the following potential penalties: 

  • Class I felony: fine of up to $10,000, prison sentence of up to three years and six months imprisonment, or both
  • Class H felony: fine of up to $10,000, prison sentence of up to six years, or both
  • Class F felony: fine of up to $25,000, a prison sentence of up to 12 years and 6 months, or both 

Under Wisconsin law, if a person disguises the identity or location of the computer she or he is using to commit the act in an effort to keep from being connected to the potential crime, the original penalty for the felony or misdemeanor can be enhanced and increased by added years of incarceration and increased financial penalties.

In addition to the above penalties, a judge may place restrictions on the offender's use of computers for as long as the length of an offender’s potential sentence, unless the offense is punishable by forfeiture. A person or entity who harmed by the alleged actions may also pursue compensation through a civil lawsuit

Civil Consequences and Damages

The problems associated with a computer crimes allegation and conviction do not end with the criminal fines, supervision, and prison or jail time. In Wisconsin, any person or entity whose computer and digital data was taken or compromised, or who suffered other injuries, may bring a civil lawsuit against the person charged with computer crimes, before or after conviction of that crime, for potentially significant money damages. In these cases, a court may award injunctive relief to the alleged victim, plus money damages, costs and attorneys’ fees.  Wis. Stat. §943.70(5).

A civil lawsuit for damages can also allege causes of action based upon federal law, like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), 18 U.S.C. § 1030, which provides both criminal and civil penalties for victims of security breaches. Under the CFAA, employers, for instance, can seek damages from former employees who access company computers “without authorization” or who exceed authorized access. Additional related grounds for criminal prosecution and civil liability exist under the Economic Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1831 and for theft of trade secrets under 18 U.S.C. § 1832. 

Contact a Milwaukee, Wisconsin Computer Crimes Attorney

Computer crime investigations, prosecutions and court cases are serious, and have potentially severe financial and legal implications, as well as potential loss of freedom.  These types of cases often start with a seemingly innocuous questioning by private individuals and entities, working in tandem with law enforcement, unbeknownst to the target of the investigation. These cases require forensic computer experts and knowledge of the law enforcement investigative techniques, software for mirror imaging, etc. The attorneys at Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, LLP have considerable experience in this area, and we have defended persons and entities in computer crimes cases in state and federal court, including civil damages claims. If you or someone you know is facing and investigation or is accused of computer crimes, you need experienced legal representation. Do not go it alone at any stage. Our experienced attorneys can help you determine the best approach and defense strategy, appropriate experts, etc., and we will work to help you try to achieve a positive outcome to your case. Contact our Milwaukee criminal defense attorneys at 414-271-1440.




Brian Krebs, Data Theft Common by Departing Employees - http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/26/AR2009022601821.html 

State Bar of Wisconsin - https://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/WisconsinLawyer/Pages/Article.aspx?Volume=89&Issue=6&ArticleID=24907

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