Computers Raise New Issues in Law Enforcement

The always evolving use of computers and the Internet has presented new, often unanticipated tools and consequences in the world of criminal law and civil practice. Once something is sent over the Internet, whether as simple as a text message or as demonstrative as a pornographic movie, it is out in cyberspace forever and may become evidence in a trial. Even what is “deleted” can be recovered from a computer’s “hard drive” by the use of sophisticated technology.

On-line communications are often intended to be anonymous, e-mails and attachments are often open to mistake or misinterpretation. Our attorneys start with the presumption that the client is innocent and that the government cannot prove that they committed any offense. Three types of cases are appearing with increasing frequency:

1. Online Sex Solicitations: Introductions in “chat rooms” develop into allegations of attempted sexual assault; adult and child pornography may be sent over the Internet and, indeed, the mere receipt and unexplained retention of images can be prosecuted.

For example, solicitation of minors for sex has become a high-profile computer crime with the advent of “stings” broadcast throughout the nation. The “minor” is usually an adult – a police officer – but the impossibility of completing the crime is not a defense to the charge of “attempted sexual assault upon a minor.” Law enforcement and prosecutors are aggressive in going after those accused of attempted sexual assault or distributing child pornography via the Internet. Every sex related prosecutor threatens the defendant with prison time followed by lifetime sex offender registration.

2. Competitors and employees are often accused of “hacking” into closed corporate networks. This “hacking” charge is often coupled with a charge of “aggravated identity theft” which carries, in federal law, a mandatory two years of extra time.

3. Use the Internet for business transactions, resulting in accusations the proprietor is committing fraud upon the public, are increasingly common.