The U.S. Supreme Court on June 3 sided with a police officer who accessed a license plate database via “improper purpose” and ruled that he can’t be charged under federal law.
In a 6–3 majority opinion written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the nation’s highest court held that Georgia officer Nathan Van Buren didn’t violate U.S. cybercrime law when he searched a license plate database for non-law-enforcement reasons. Van Buren had appealed a conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act after a lower court upheld a jury verdict against him.
“This provision covers those who obtain information from particular areas in the computer—such as files, folders, or databases—to which their computer access does not extend. It does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them,” Barrett wrote (pdf) in the order.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts dissented from the ruling.
Former President Donald Trump’s three appointees to the court—Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch—were joined by the three liberal justices—Elena Kagan, Sonya Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer—in the ruling.
“It is understandable to be uncomfortable with so much conduct being criminalized,” Thomas wrote in his dissent, “but that discomfort does not give us authority to alter statutes.
“In the end, the Act may or may not cover a wide array of conduct because of changes in technology that have occurred since 1984,” Thomas wrote. “But the text makes one thing clear: Using a police database to obtain information in circumstances where that use is expressly forbidden is a crime. I respectfully dissent.”
The dispute centered on a 1986 U.S. law meant to target hacking and related computer crimes. The law prohibits accessing a computer without authorization and also exceeding authorized access.
In the case, Van Buren had asked a local man, Andrew Albo, for money due to financial hardships. Albo then told law enforcement officials, before the FBI carried out a sting operation in which Albo offered to pay money to Van Buren to run a license plate search via an official police database. For that, he paid Van Buren $6,000.
In 2017, a federal grand jury convicted the former officer of violating the computer fraud law and on a separate charge of honest services fraud. Two years later, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the computer fraud charge but ordered a new trial on the honest services charge.
Reuters contributed to this report.