Boulder Computer & Internet Crimes Attorney
When you picture a criminal offense, what comes to mind? If you’re like many, you imagine physical incidents, such as robbery or even homicide. Often, however, people forget that a variety of online behaviors can also lead to criminal charges. These can carry harsh penalties, particularly when they occur at the federal level.
Given the complications of computer crimes — and the seemingly harmless behaviors that sometimes lead to allegations — it’s important to understand what, exactly constitutes cyber crime and which defenses are most likely to prove successful in the event of criminal charges. We explain all this in detail below:
Definition of a Computer Crime in Colorado
Computer crimes can be difficult to define, as they encompass such a wide variety of behaviors. Often, the line between legal and criminal behavior is surprisingly thin when digital devices are involved.
In general, computer crimes occur when a computer is used to take part in illegal activities (as in stalking or child enticement), or when the computer itself is targeted (denial of service attacks, for example).
To further clarify the concept, it helps to examine the definition provided in Title 18, Article 5.5 of the Colorado Revised Statutes (CRS 18-5.5-102). This portion of the criminal code states that computer crimes occur whenever perpetrators knowingly engage in one of the following activities:
- Accessing computers or networks without express authorization
- Taking advantage of computer access to commit fraud or theft
- Purposefully interrupting or damaging computers, networks, or applications
- Transmitting programs or codes meant to damage other devices
Computer crimes can be classified as misdemeanor or felony offenses. The level of the crime largely depends on the monetary damage caused by the prohibited activity. For example, if losses total less than $50, the offense may be deemed a class 1 petty offense. Meanwhile, digital crimes that lead to over $1 million in damages constitute class 2 felonies.
Colorado’s cyber crime laws don’t exclusively cover conventional laptop or desktop computers. CRS 18-5.5-101 defines “computer” as any electronic or data processing device that “performs logical, arithmetic, memory, or storage functions.” Additionally, local computer crime laws apply to processing and storage facilities to which devices are connected.
Common Types of Computer Crimes
Cyber crime is nearly as diverse as the concept of crime itself. After all, as explained previously, offenses can involve either the use or targeting of computers.
Given the vast scope of modern cyber crime, it should come as little surprise that allegations and sentencing vary dramatically from one offense to the next. How a crime is categorized may determine, to an extent, which legal defenses are available and how likely solutions such as reduced sentencing may be.
To illustrate the broad spectrum of computer crimes in Colorado, we’ve highlighted a few of the most common allegations below:
- Hacking. When unauthorized individuals or programs gain access to protected accounts, they hold the potential to do significant damage. While most people think of misdeeds that occur after the hacking process as the “real” crimes, the very act of infiltrating a device or network without authorization constitutes a crime, as defined in CRS 18-5.5-102. Often, hacking is accompanied by other crimes, as highlighted below.
- Phishing scams. Named for the digital lures they often involve, phishing attacks occur when victims receive fraudulent messages asking for sensitive data. Attackers typically disguise themselves as legitimate individuals or businesses, tricking recipients into willingly giving up information they might otherwise be inclined to protect.
- Stealing data. While some attackers entice victims to provide sensitive information during phishing attacks, this is just one of several methods available for acquiring vulnerable — and highly valuable — information. Hackers may also steal data via brute force attacks or other malicious activity. No matter how infiltration occurs, the act of stealing or manipulating protected information is a crime.
- Spreading malware or viruses. Any software designed with the intention of harming computers, clients, or networks can be referred to as malware. Viruses represent an especially damaging form of malware, in which harmful codes change how individual devices behave before replicating and spreading to other devices. Intentionally spreading either malware or viruses is definitely illegal but, surprisingly, innocent people may also face criminal allegations if they unintentionally spread malicious code.
- Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. Designed to make devices or networks unavailable, DoS attacks flood targets with unwanted traffic. These incidents are sometimes accompanied by ransomware attacks, in which the perpetrator refuses to make networks available until the victim pays an exorbitant fee. When multiple devices are called upon to flood targeted resources, the attack is known as distributed denial of service (DDoS).
- Identity theft. Stolen information is always devastating, but it’s an even bigger problem when personal data is used to commit fraud. For example, an identity thief might steal a Social Security Number or credit card number in hopes of creating fraudulent accounts or making unauthorized purchases. This crime is defined in CRS 18-5-902, which references the problematic use not only of personally and financially identifying information, but also of financial devices.
- Cyberbullying and harassment. Negative interactions are an unfortunate but, to an extent, expected aspect of the online experience. With cyberbullying, however, this crosses the line to involve the intentional infliction of pain or humiliation. When this takes the form of harassment, it can become a criminal offense. According to CRS 18-9-111 — also known as Kiana Arellano’s law — criminal harassment occurs when an interactive electronic medium is used to threaten bodily, image, or property damage. Obscene proposals made over electronic mediums can be deemed electronic harassment in some situations.
- Child enticement. This serious crime involves an adult’s attempts to persuade a minor to enter a secluded area with the intention of engaging in unlawful sexual conduct. In Colorado, this crime can be a class III or class IV felony. While this can occur on an in-person basis, initial outreach involving minors often occurs online. Significant gray area often surrounds enticement cases; defendants may claim, for example, that they invited children to interact for legal purposes.
When Computer Crimes Are a Federal Offense
While many computer crimes are tried at the state level, select circumstances can bring these allegations to federal court. Such computer-related offenses are outlined in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Crimes investigated at the federal level may involve child pornography, infiltration of government devices, or obtaining sensitive information that is relevant to national security.
Computer crime allegations that occur at the federal level nearly always carry severe penalties. These cases call for uniquely aggressive legal action, especially given the inherent difficulty of going up against federal agencies. Still, federal computer cases are far from hopeless; strong defense from an attorney with a solid track record in federal criminal law can make all the difference.
Computer Crimes Defense: Search And Seizure Laws
Because law enforcement officials may attempt to seize or search devices during criminal investigations, a thorough understanding of basic legal rights is crucial.
While select state and federal laws enable police officers to confiscate property, this can only occur under certain circumstances. Determining the nature of these situations can be tricky. After all, while the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable search and seizure,” it provides no clear definition of “unreasonable.” In general, however, it is necessary to secure a search warrant prior to confiscating devices or examining data contained therein.
When in doubt, it’s important to meet with an attorney before providing any details that could accidentally grant law enforcement access to devices or digital information.
If there is any source of solace for those subjected to illegal search and seizure, it’s that evidence collected without a search warrant is often deemed inadmissible. This can be a key opportunity for defense during a challenging cyber crime case: a skilled Colorado criminal defense attorney can demonstrate that digital information was obtained illegally. Lawyers can also file motions to ensure that illegally seized devices are promptly returned.
When Should You Talk to a Cyber Crimes Attorney?
If you have been accused of committing a computer crime, time is of the essence. Even if you have yet to receive formal charges, it’s well worth your while to speak with an attorney — especially if you suspect that you are being investigated. Your attorney can protect you from inadvertently incriminating yourself. Early defense is always valuable, but attorneys can get involved during nearly any stage of the legal process.
Don’t Risk Your Freedom — Contact Us to Schedule Your Free Initial Consultation
Don’t let cyber crime allegations place your future at risk. These charges are more serious than most people realize, and the line between ordinary digital behavior and actions that meet the legal definition of cyber crime can be shockingly thin.
The sooner you get in touch with a trusted team of Boulder criminal defense lawyers, the better. The Moorhead Law Group has your back during this difficult time. Call us at 303-586-6909 or contact us online to set up a time to come in and talk with our defense lawyers about the computer crime charges against you.