California Computer Crime Law: Types and Penalties

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In the state of California, as elsewhere, computers find their way into many criminal cases, whether as evidence or as a tool for the accused. It's not a difficult scenario to imagine a world where the majority of the population carries a tiny computer in their pocket at all times, and smart technology appears on every device from TVs to refrigerators. Of course the Golden State falls under the jurisdiction of U.S. cyber crime laws at the federal level, but California state computer crime laws come in a few flavors of their own, too, most notably explored in California Penal Code Section 502.

California Penal Code Section 502: Unlawful Use of a Computer

California Penal Code Section 502(c), to be exact, takes the deepest dive into statewide computer crime laws. Primarily, Penal Code Section 502 deals with the unlawful use of a computer in the state of California. Basically, this establishes that it's a crime to knowingly use a computer system in the pursuit of unlawful activity.

Commonly, this unlawful activity includes using a computer to wrongfully obtain data, money or property, or using a computer to deceive, defraud or extort another person, organization or entity. To the surprise of no one, it's illegal to disrupt government computer services in California, as well.

Penal Code Section 502 also deals with the illegality of using a computer without permission. In California, it's against the law to use a computer without permission to alter, damage, delete or destroy data, programs or software; to disrupt computer services – not just government ones; or to introduce a computer virus. It's also illegal to copy, take or use data from a computer without permission.

Penal Code Section 502: Assisting Another in Computer Crimes

Penal Code Section 502 also states that it's illegal to assist another in unlawful access to a computer or computer systems, or to use the domain name or profile of another person or entity to commit the computer crimes detailed within the law.

Read More: Top Five Computer Crimes

Penalties Under Penal Code 502

In terms of penalties, the crimes listed under Penal Code 502 are what's known in California as "wobbler" crimes, meaning they can be prosecuted as either misdemeanors or as felonies. The charge ultimately depends on the court's assessment of the gravity of the crime, taking into account factors such as the damage to the victims, the intent of the defendant and the defendant's criminal history, or lack thereof.

Naturally, the penalties range rather widely for these crimes. If the unlawful use of a computer is prosecuted as a misdemeanor in California, the penalties include up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

If the court determines the unlawful computer usage to be a felony, the penalties see a significant spike. In this case, the punishment may include anywhere from 16 months to three years in jail, as well as fines of up to $10,000. Felony jail time may be served in county jail or state prison. In some cases, California law allows the courts to require community service or other alternate sentencing, particularly when future crimes are deemed unlikely.

Damages and Civil Claims Following a Conviction

In addition to a potential combination of jail time and fines, a conviction for crimes involving the unlawful use of a computer can also result in defendants having to pay damages to their victims. Likewise, a victim has the option to file a civil suit against the defendant.

Computer Crimes: Knowledge and Defense

Under California's Penal Code Section 502, the word "knowingly" plays a big role when it comes to the unlawful use of a computer. In fact, it shows up no less than 14 times in the language of the law itself. "Knowingly and without permission" is basically the mantra of PC Section 502.

This means that the law has what is known as a knowledge requirement. In court, prosecutors must prove that the defendant acted knowingly and willfully when committing the computer-related crime. Actions performed accidentally may be more difficult to charge and may be viewed as negligence due to not fulfilling the knowledge requirement.

If the unlawful usage of the computer or computer systems was committed within the scope of lawful employment – meaning it falls under the duties deemed reasonably necessary for the defendant's profession – this can serve as a possible defense for the accused.

Hacking and Phishing in California

While California Penal Code Section 502 specifically deals with the unlawful use of computers, computers play a role in countless other criminal cases in the state. At the firm's official website, Neil Shouse, former Los Angeles prosecutor now of the Shouse Law Group of California, lists some of the most common computer-related crimes committed in the state.

Among these common offenses, hacking and phishing are both federal crimes, covered in 18 United States Code, Sections 1028 and 1030, also known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Computer trespassing, more commonly called hacking, occurs when someone maliciously accesses a computer without permission. Penalties may include up to 10 years in federal prison, with severity determined by the nature of the trespass; hacking government computers predictably leads to hefty consequences.

Phishers fraudulently obtain personal information by impersonating someone else or infect computer systems with viruses or malware as means to access info, which is often financial. Phishing convictions come with three to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000, plus forfeiture of any personal property used or intended to be used in the crime.

Digital Theft and Cyberstalking

Other common computer crimes, committed in California, according to Shouse, are covered under state law by way of the Penal Code. For instance, stealing data is a wobbler crime that involves the unauthorized taking or copying of information from computers or computer systems. Misdemeanors result in jail time of up to one year, while felonies may lead to up to three years in prison.

California Penal Code Section 530.5, False Personification and Cheats, details the state's legal stance on identity theft, which is commonly charged as fraud. If the identity theft is committed using a computer, though, federal law (18 U.S.C. Section 1028) comes into play. Notably, California law makes it clear that computer service or access providers are not liable in connection to the crime. Like phishing, federal identity theft punishments include three to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000, plus forfeiture of any personal property used or intended to be used in the crime.

Also known as electronic harassment, California Penal Code Section 646.9 covers cyberstalking, which occurs when the defendant uses the internet to harass, abuse or threaten another person. Usually performed via social media or email, this form of harassment is also a wobbler; misdemeanor convictions lead to up to a year in jail, while felony cyberstalking convictions may lead to up to five years in prison.

Costs of Cybercrime

As Accenture Security relays in their 2019 Cost of Cybercrime report, computer-related crimes are on the rise, with security breaches increasing 11 percent from 2017 to 2018 and the average cost of cyber crime among the study's 355 participating global organizations increasing by $1.4 million that same year. California may have a lot of coastline, but it's not an island – legislation such as California Penal Code Section 502 is destined to become even more relevant as time marches forward.

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About the Author

As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.