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Unauthorized Computer Access and Fraud - California Penal Code Section 502

Unauthorized computer access and fraud laws is covered under California Penal Code Section 502. It's called the “Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act” and criminalizes the act of accessing a computer or computer network without permission when you have the intent to defraud, cause harm, or commit a crime.

Obviously, over the past several years, internet use has become an important part of all aspects of our lives. Most people use the internet for all their banking and personal shopping transactions, but this convenience comes with a price. The substantial rise of e-commerce has produced a record number of individuals using the internet to commit fraud and other types of cybercrimes. In response, California Lawmakers have passed several laws criminalizing unauthorized computer access and fraud, such as Penal Code Section 502.

It's important to note that you can still be found guilty of unauthorized access to a computer even in situations where you don't defraud someone out of money or property. In other words, it's a crime just to unlawfully access a computer without permission. In Los Angeles County, there are many common examples of an unauthorized computer access offense.

For example, there have been cases of students hacking into their school's computer network to modify their grades. Another example is a situation where someone hacks into a bank's computer network to steal credit card numbers. The legal penalties for a violation of Penal Code Section 502 will depend of the specific statue violated. Unauthorized computer access and fraud is a known as a “wobbler” offense.

This means the Los Angeles County prosecutor can file the case as either a misdemeanor or felony crime. If you are facing allegations of unauthorized computer access, you should immediately consult with the experienced Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers at Eisner Gorin LLP to review your situation and legal options. Let's take a closer look at the legal definition, penalties, and defenses below.

Legal Definition of Unauthorized Computer Access

California Penal Code Section 502, unauthorized computer access, is described as a crime when someone:

Tampers, interferes, damages, and commits an unauthorized access to lawfully created computer data and computer systems.

PC 502 covers a wide range of ways someone can commit unauthorized computer access. For example, Penal Code 502(c), the most common form, makes it a crime to access, or cause to access, a computer, or computer network knowingly without permission. If convicted, the legal penalties include a $1,000 fine, as an infraction, if there was no injury caused. If you are convicted of a misdemeanor offense, the legal penalties include:

  • Up to one year in a Los Angeles County jail
  • A fine up to $5,000
  • Misdemeanor summary probation

If your unauthorized computer access causes another person to suffer a loss of more than $5,000, it's a wobbler that can be filed as a misdemeanor or felony crime. If you are convicted of a felony offense, the legal penalties include:

  • 16 months, 2 or 3 years in a Los Angeles County jail
  • A fine up to $10,000
  • Formal felony probation

Other Types of Computer Access Crimes

As stated above, there are a wide variety of ways to commit an unauthorized computer access crime in violation of California Penal Code Section 502. The other more serious forms include the following;

  • Altering, deleting, taking or stealing data
  • Assisting another person with unauthorized access
  • Disrupting or denying computer services to authorized users
  • Unauthorized use of computer services without permission
  • Creating or spreading a computer virus / introducing computer containment
  • Using another person's domain name or profile
  • Unauthorized access to government or public safety computer systems

The legal penalties for the various forms of computer access crimes are similar to the penalties listed above. Again, the penalties will defend on if the case is a misdemeanor or felony crime. It should be noted that any computer equipment that was used to commit any of the crimes above can be seized under asset forfeiture laws.

Penal Code is a complex and often confusing set of laws specifically designed to protect individuals, businesses, and government agencies from tampering, interference, and damage to their computer data and systems. Therefore, each case has its own set of unique circumstances and evidence. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys need to thoroughly review all the specific details in order to plan an effective strategy for your defense.

Elements of an Unauthorized Computer Access Crime

In order for the Los Angeles County prosecutor to convict you of unauthorized computer access in violation of California Penal Code Section 502, they must be able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the following applicable elements of the crime:

  • You knowingly accessed without permission and then altered, took, copied, damaged, deleted, destroyed any data on computer or computer system.
  • You acted with intent to devise or execute a scheme to defraud, deceive, or extort.
  • You acted unlawfully in order to control or obtain money, property, or data.
  • You knowingly without permission used or caused to be used computer services.
  • You knowingly without permission disrupted or caused the disruption of computer services to an authorized user of a computer network.
  • You knowingly assisted in providing means of accessing a computer network in violation of this law.
  • You knowingly introduced a computer contaminant into a computer, computer system, or computer network.
  • You knowingly used the Internet domain name of another individual or corporation to send electronic mail messages that caused damage to a computer or computer network.

As you can see above in the elements of the crime, Penal Code Section 502 covers a broad range on unlawful computer access activity. The main key words above the prosecutor has to prove is the word “knowingly and without permission.” These critical elements can be challenged by an experienced criminal defense lawyer at our law firm. 

Related Offenses

California Penal Code Section 530.5 – Identity Theft California Penal Code Section 484a – Petty Theft California Penal Code Section 484e – Credit Card Fraud California Penal Code Section 476 – Check Fraud California Penal Code Section 487 – Grand Theft

Legal Defenses to Charges of Unlawful Computer Fraud

Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys can use a wide range of strategies to defend you against charges of unauthorized computer access and fraud which violated California Penal Code Section 502. As stated, every case is unique and we need to closely examine the evidence in your specific case, but the most common legal defenses include:

False Accusation – In many cases, unauthorized access to computers allegations will involve highly technical details that are typically difficult to understand. Investigators may not be qualified and know all the specific details and could rush to judgment and simply falsely accuse you. In these situations, our lawyers might be able to cast doubt on the prosecutor's evidence. We can use the any weakness in their case against you to negotiate for a lesser offense or even a case dismissal.

You Didn't Act Knowingly – As stated above extensively, the key element in a unauthorized computer access and fraud case is that you acted “knowingly.” This means willfully and on purpose. If the prosecutor can't prove you acted knowingly, you can probably avoid a conviction. Our attorneys might be able to prove you accidentally accessed a computer network and had no intent to cause harm or commit fraud. Again, if we can cast some reasonable doubt on the prosecutor's claim you acted knowingly, we might be able to convince the Los Angeles County prosecutor to reduce or even dismiss the charges against you.

Contact our Los Angeles Criminal Attorneys

If you are under investigation or already charged with unauthorized computer access and fraud law under California Penal Code Section 502, you need to remain silent and consult with the experienced Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers at Eisner Gorin LLP. These are complex cases and require attorneys who understand all technical details in order to develop an effective defense strategy.

Let us take a close look at the evidence against you and then explore your legal options moving forward. Contact our law office at 877-781-1570.

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