In Pennsylvania, computer crimes can carry penalties of up to seven years in prison and $15,000 in fines for each individual offense. Fortunately, while the concept of computer crimes is still relatively new, individuals who are facing these life-altering penalties have a number of well-established defenses available.
If you have been charged with unlawful use of computers, disruption of service, computer theft, computer trespass, unlawful duplication, or any other computer crime under Pennsylvania law, it is important to begin working on your defense strategy immediately. While the prosecutor’s office has the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, it is still up to you to defend yourself; and, if you do nothing, there is a significant risk that you will face a “guilty” verdict and harsh sentencing at trial.
10 Potential Defenses to Computer Crimes in Pennsylvania
With this in mind, and recognizing that each case involves highly-unique factual circumstances and legal issues, the following are 10 potential defenses to computer crimes in Pennsylvania:
Many computer and Internet-related crimes hinge on a lack of consent. In order to obtain a conviction, the prosecutor’s office must prove that you gained access someone else’s login credentials, computer system, or data without authorization. If you can show that you had the owner’s consent, or even that you reasonably believed that you had the owner’s consent, this may be enough to protect you against a conviction or to argue for lenient sentencing.
2. Lack of Knowledge, Willfulness, or Intent
Similarly, many of Pennsylvania’s computer crime statutes require evidence of a certain mental state in order to establish criminal culpability. This may include evidence that the defendant acted with knowledge, willfulness, or an intent to commit the crime alleged. Since the burden of proof rests with the prosecution, you do not have to prove that you lacked the requisite mental state to commit a crime; rather, it is enough to raise doubt about the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence in the minds of the jury. As a person’s mental state is inherently subjective, challenging the government’s evidence of knowledge, willfulness, or intent will be a key defense strategy in many cases.
3. Mistaken Identity
If the police located you by tracking your Internet protocol (IP) address, you may be able to argue that you are a victim of mistaken identity. Is it possible that someone else is using your IP address or masking (or “spoofing”) their IP address to your location? Was someone else pretending to be you online? Could someone else have physically logged on to your phone or computer at work or at home? These are all questions you may be able to use to prevent the prosecutor’s office from meeting its burden of proof.
4. Lack of Evidence
Along with proving the requisite mental state and lack of consent, the prosecution must prove each other element of your alleged computer crime beyond a reasonable doubt. If the government’s evidence on any element of the crime is lacking, this can be enough to compel a “not guilty” verdict at trial.
5. Unlawful Search or Seizure
By virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, state police in Pennsylvania are subject to the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is the amendment which states that citizens’ right to be, “secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause . . . .”
If the police arrested you or searched your home or office without probable cause, then any evidence obtained as a result of your arrest or the search may be inadmissible in your criminal case. If the government’s key evidence is inadmissible in court, then the prosecutors handling your case may be unable to convince the jury of your guilt regardless of the facts at hand.
6. Miranda Violations
Under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (which also apply in state criminal cases), targets of criminal investigations and defendants awaiting trial have the right to legal counsel, and they have the right not to say anything that could be used against them in court. These rights are the basis for the well-known Miranda warning, which the police must read before conducting a custodial interrogation.
If the police failed to read your Miranda rights, and if you made self-incriminating statements after your rights were supposed to have been read, then your statements may be inadmissible in court. If these statements form the underpinnings of the prosecution’s case, then there may not be enough admissible evidence to secure a conviction at trial.
Can you show, through your Internet data or otherwise, that it was not physically possible for you to have committed the crime (or crimes) alleged? If the police arrested the wrong suspect and you have a way to prove that you could not possibly be the person they are looking for, this could be the strongest defense to culpability in your criminal case.
8., 9., and 10. Police or Prosecutorial Misconduct, Ex Post Facto Laws, and a Fair Trial
Along with the well-known constitutional protections discussed above, there are other constitutional protections that apply in state criminal cases as well. These include:
- Protection Against Police and Prosecutorial Misconduct – As a criminal defendant, you have the right to know the charges against you, and you have the right to be made aware of the evidence the prosecution intends to use against you at trial. There are also clear guidelines regarding how evidence can be obtained, how evidence must be stored, and what other information police and prosecutors are entitled to withhold.
- Protection Against Ex Post Facto Laws – You cannot be prosecuted under a law that did not exist at the time of your arrest.
- Protection Against an Unfair Trial – Finally, there are several protections that apply throughout the course of trial. If the prosecutor’s office or the court interferes with your right to a fair trial, you may have grounds to challenge the outcome of your case on appeal.
Speak with a Computer Crime Defense Lawyer in Philadelphia, PA
If you have been arrested for a computer crime in Pennsylvania, criminal defense attorney Brian Fishman can help you assert a strategic defense. To get started with a confidential initial consultation, call 267-758-2228 or request an appointment online today.