The US Supreme Court will consider whether to limit the type of conduct that can be prosecuted under a federal computer fraud law in a case it took up on Monday involving a former Georgia police officer convicted after agreeing to investigate whether a purported local stripper was an undercover cop.
The justices will hear Nathan Van Buren’s appeal of his conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for conducting a search of law enforcement records to dig up information for an acquaintance who gave him cash in return while serving as a police sergeant in the city of Cumming.
Van Buren was convicted in 2017 on two federal charges arising from an FBI sting operation two years earlier and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, which he has yet to serve.
The computer fraud law, enacted in 1986, prohibits accessing a computer without authorization and also exceeding authorized access. Van Buren has said that as a police officer he was authorised to use the computer and the fact that the search he conducted lacked a proper motive does not mean he violated that particular law.
Van Buren, suffering financial difficulties, had asked a local man, Andrew Albo, for money. Albo alerted law enforcement authorities and the FBI devised a sting in which Albo offered to pay Van Buren money to run a search for a license plate on a law enforcement database. Albo’s fictional story was that he wanted to find out if a local stripper was an undercover cop.
Albo gave Van Buren US$6,000 and Van Buren conducted the search. Van Buren was convicted of one count of violating the computer fraud law and a separate count of honest services fraud.
The Atlanta-based 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 threw out the honest services fraud conviction. Van Buren then appealed to the Supreme Court to try to overturn the computer fraud conviction. Prosecutors plan to retry him on the honest services charge.
Van Buren’s lawyers have said the broad interpretation of the 1986 law embraced by some courts could criminalize innocent behavior including people using work computers to participate in college basketball office pools.
The federal government frequently brings cases under the law and businesses often cite its civil provision to bring cases against employees.
President Donald Trump’s administration urged the Supreme Court to leave Van Buren’s conviction in place. The Justice Department said prosecutors already must follow guidance limiting the circumstances under which they can bring charges.
The court will hear arguments and rule in the case in its next term, which starts in October.