FALL 2007

Computer Law

Course No.  9200 711 001
Th 6:30 - 9:30 p.m.
Room W-214
Professor Jay Dratler, Jr.
Room 231D (IP Alcove)
(330) 972-7972
dratler@uakron.edu, dratler@neo.rr.com
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007   Jay Dratler, Jr.   For permission, see CMI.

Notes on United States v. Morris

1.  Since adopting it in 1984, Congress has amended Section 1030 nine times.  (A list of amendments appears in the "HISTORY" section of the annotations, immediately after the statute's current language, in the annotated version of the statute available, for example, on LEXIS.)  Why do you think the statute suffered so many amendments in less than twenty-five years?  Are prosecutors, the courts and Congress still adjusting to the unforeseen consequences of computer technology and use?  Whatever the reason, it behooves lawyers to check the current version of the statute for possible later amendments before attempting to apply it.

2.  The Morris case interprets statutory language that has been changed.  Nevertheless, it is an important decision for two reasons.  First, it is a classic case of statutory interpreation, involving everything from punctuation to legislative history.  Second, it illustrates how courts may resolve a statutory ambiguity against a criminal defendant, despite the traditional rule that penal statutes are strictly construed.

As the Morris court states, statutory exegesis is needed only when the plain language of the statute is ambiguous.  Can you articulate precisely the ambiguity in this case?  The word "ambiguity" implies two or more plausible meanings of the same statutory language.  Can you articulate them precisely?

Once the party asserting an ambiguity (here the defendant Morris) has convinced the court that one exists, the court must entertain all reasonable arguments bearing on the resolution of the ambiguity.  Here the court considers: (1) puncutation, (2) the purpose and sense of the statute as a whole, (3) the language and meaning of other sections of the same statute, (4) the congressional committee reports, and (5) the history of statutory amendments and the reasons for them.  The term "legislative history" is broad enough to cover the last four considerations.

On which of these five aids to interpretation does the court ultimately rely most heavily?  Does its doing so make sense?  Is its reasoning persuasive, and its conclusion correct?

3 .  Under what specific subsection(s), and on what specific words and phrases in each, did successful prosecution of Morris depend?  Would the same result apply under today's version of the statute?  Would prosecution of Morris be easier or harder today?  Would he be guilty of a felony, or only a misdemeanor?

4 .  Congress added the civil cause of action in subsection (g) as part of the 1994 amendments.  See Computer Abuse Amendments Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, Title XXIX, § 290001(d), 108 Stat. 2097 (Sept. 13, 1994).  This civil offense, buried in a criminal staute deep in the bowels of the federal Criminal Code (Title 18 of the United States Code), is a trap for the unwary.  Does its existence suggest good reason for reading any unfamiliar statute from beginning to end?

If Morris had performed his little "experiments" today, could he have been sued by all the various institutions whose computers his "worm" brought down?  If so, for what relief would he have been liable?  Might his financial future be uncertain?

5 .  Morris seemed to be more heedless of consequences than a deliberate and purposeful wrongdoer.  After all, his original goal was to improve computer security by testing it.

Does/should the statute take culpability (or lack thereof) into account in assessing liability?  Should courts take it into account in sentencing?  Should courts exercise particular care in applying criminal law to computer crimes in which reckless, negligent, or even innocent acts may have tremendous, even disastrous, consequences?  Or should criminal defendants be liable for all the harm they cause, even if they could not reasonably foresee that harm at the time of their acts that caused it?  If even experts could not foresee the extent of the harm?

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