Penalties for Unauthorized Computer Access in California

Part of California’s internet crime laws address unauthorized computer access, which is defined as taking control of another’s network, their personal computer, or computer data without permission. According to California Penal Code, mere access alone is punishable without anything being stolen.

Let us look closer at state laws against unauthorized computer access and what punishments are possible if convicted.

Crimes Against Property (Larceny)

Unauthorized computer access is considered a crime against property, or larceny, in California. Any individual who gains access to a personal computer, government or private network, laptop, tablet, or other digital medium to perpetuate theft or other crimes against public policy, or uses the same to cause damage, is guilty of larceny.

Note that an individual need not take money or cause damage under this statute to be convicted of larceny. All the state must prove is intent.

For example, an individual’s email is considered private, even in a marriage. So, if a wife suspects her husband is having an extramarital affair, and knows enough about his password to guess any remaining letters or numbers, she has just committed unauthorized computer access.

Certain subsections of Section 502 are considered “wobbler” offenses, which are charged either civilly or criminally.

Punishments for Unauthorized Computer Access

Depending on whether data is taken or access led to monetary loss, punishments can include up to three years in prison, fines, and restitution. Federal charges are possible if access threatened national security, happened on government grounds, or to government computers.

First offenses that led to no losses fall under California’s infraction law, punishable through fines up to $1,000.

If the crime led to monetary loss over $5,000, or is a second offense, the infraction becomes a misdemeanor or felony punishable up to one year in county jail, along with fines and restitution, or three years in CDC and a $10,000 fine.

Altering, stealing or deleting data is an automatic criminal charge considered a “wobbler” offense, punishable with up to three years in prison.

What Must be Proven?

Prosecution must prove beyond a doubt that not only was access to a physical or host computer unauthorized, it was done with malicious intent. It takes matching one’s IP address to their physical street address to prove remote access crimes, or physical proof one entered another’s home, email address, or computer without permission.

Gathering that evidence is no small order. Maybe an employee granted access to an individual, but forgot after the fact. Perhaps accessing the computer was to prevent another’s suicide or avert similar tragedy; that would take away an element of maliciousness.

Protect Your Legal Interests

It takes enough evidence to persuade a jury of your innocence to either compel a prosecutor to drop the case, or lower charges significantly. In proving your innocence, an experienced criminal attorney need only prove your intentions were sincere.

Remember, fighting any criminal case where unauthorized computer access is alleged without counsel could put you in harm’s way. It is important to consult with professionals knowledgeable in California Penal Code to prove your innocence.