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United States v. Morris

    Brief Fact Summary. Defendant Morris was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 for launching a “worm” on the internet. On appeal, he argues that the government failed to prove that he intended every element of the offense.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The intent element of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 applies only to the access element.

    Facts. The Defendant was a computer science graduate student at Cornell University. In an attempt to demonstrate the inadequacies of the security measures on computer networks, the Defendant released a “worm” on the internet designed to spread across a wide network of computers across the country. The worm worked incredibly well. In fact, it worked too well, and the Defendant sought to stop the spread of the worm. However, the Defendant still caused significant damage to computers around the country. Defendant was thereafter convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, and he appeals on the ground that the government failed to prove he intended every element of the offense.

    Issue. Must the government not only prove that the Defendant intended to access a federal interest computer but also that he intended to prevent authorized use of the computer’s information and thereby cause loss?

    Held. No. Conviction affirmed.
    The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 applies to anyone who intentionally accesses a Federal interest computer without authorization and alters, damages, or destroys information, or prevents authorized use of any such computer or information and thereby causes loss.

    The legislative history suggests that the intent element applies only to the access element. No other elements of the offense have to be intentional. This view is supported by the wording, structure, and purpose of the subsection compared to its predecessor provision.

    Therefore, the Defendant’s conviction stands since it was proved beyond a reasonable doubt at trial that the Defendant intentionally accessed federal computers.


    Discussion. Often, the question of whether a particular mens rea term refers to all or some elements of the offense is resolved grammatically or in such a way to avoid an odd or unfair result.


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