What? Me, A Felon?

While trying to get an Internet connection outside a convenience store yesterday, I remembered reading this story from a couple of years ago:

A Michigan man has been fined $400 and given 40 hours of community service for accessing an open wireless Internet connection outside a coffee shop.

Under a little known state law against computer hackers, Sam Peterson II, of Cedar Springs, Mich., faced a felony charge after cops found him on March 27 sitting in front of the Re-Union Street Café in Sparta, Mich., surfing the Web from his brand-new laptop.

Last week, Peterson chose to pay the fine instead as part of a jail-diversion program.

"I think a lot of people should be shocked, because quite honestly, I still don't understand it myself," Peterson told FOXNews.com "I do not understand how this is illegal."

His troubles began in March, a couple of weeks after he had bought his first laptop computer.

Peterson, a 39-year-old toolmaker, volunteer firefighter and secretary of a bagpipe band, wanted to use his 30-minute lunch hour to check e-mails for his bagpipe group.

He got on the Internet by tapping into the local coffee shop's wireless network, but instead of going inside the shop to use the free Wi-Fi offered to paying customers, he chose to remain in his car and piggyback off the network, which he said didn't require a password.

He used the system on his lunch breaks for more than a week, and then the police showed up.

"I was sitting there reading my e-mail and he came up and stuck his head inside my window and asked me who I was spying on," Peterson told FOXNews.com.

Someone from a nearby barbershop had called cops after seeing Peterson's car pull up every day and sit in front of the coffee shop without anybody getting out.

"I just curiously asked him, 'Where are you getting the Internet connection?', you know," Sparta Police Chief Andrew Milanowski said. "And he said, 'From the café.'"

Milanowski ruled out Peterson as a possible stalker of the attractive local hairdresser, but still felt that a law might have been broken.

"We came back and we looked up the laws and we figured if we found one and thought, 'Well, let's run it by the prosecutor's office and see what they want to do,'" Milanowski said.

A few weeks later Peterson said he received a letter from the Kent County prosecutor's office saying that he faced a felony charge of fraudulent access to computer networks and that a request had been made for an arrest warrant.

The law, introduced in 1979 to protect Internet and private-network users from hackers, and amended in 2000 to include wireless systems, makes piggybacking off of Wi-Fi networks, even those without a password, illegal.

"It wasn't anything we were looking for, and it wasn't anything that we frankly particularly wanted to get involved in, but it basically fell in our lap and it was a little hard to just look the other way when somebody handed it to us," said Lynn Hopkins, assistant prosecuting attorney for Kent County.

Under the statute, individuals who log on to a Wi-Fi network with the owner's permission, or who see a pop-up screen that says it's a public network, can assume they're authorized to use the network, Hopkins said.

If they don't, they could be subject to prosecution…
It sounds like Peterson was just about as unlucky as one person can get. But, charging him with a felony for checking his email when none of the shop owners wanted to prosecute seems odd to me.

I can understand how the defendant would just want to pay the fine and put the incident behind him, but from the details of the case and the untested law, I would have been tempted to fight that charge. Prosecutors have discretion in pursuing cases in all jurisdictions and I am not sure the interest in moving forward with that one—-even though a police officer brought the law to their attention.

Then again, I may be bias since I have used a convenience store’s Internet without running into the store to purchase something--being in a hurry between meetings.

I would have rather seen the officer examine Peterson’s story and if it checked-out, just give him a warning. Tell him something like, "Hey, go buy something in the coffee shop and sit in the nice air-conditioning to web surf."

With that, everyone wins: the defendant is informed of the law, the callers are relieved that no stalking is going on, and the coffee shop gets a new customer.

In contrast, deputies in Florida followed my advice and it just caused them more work later:

A 20-year-old man in Vancouver, Wash., was charged with theft of services for allegedly sitting in a coffee shop parking lot and using its wireless Internet service for months, according to a report.

The manager of the Brewed Awakenings coffee shop, Emily Pranger, said she noticed a man would come and sit in the business's parking lot for at least three months. She said for hours at a time, he would piggyback on the stores wireless service for free.

Sheriff's deputies told the man to go away at one point but apparently he returned.

The man, identified by KATU-TV as Alexander Eric Smith of Battle Ground, was charged with theft of services.

"It's a repetitive occurrence, and it's borderline creepy." Pranger said. "If he doesn't buy anything, it's not right for him to come and use (the service)."

After an investigation, police discovered that Smith was a level one sex offender.

The sheriff's office is reviewing the case.
So much for my suggestion--and maybe it is a good thing that I filled the gas tank prior to attaching to the store’s wireless Internet today…


Xiphos said...

That's messed up for just innocent surfing. I can see warning him and running him out of there. If he comes back like the pervert, then charge him. What happened to discretion?

fayezie.com said...

i have limited familiarity with courts, but i'm surprised that even the judge bothered with such a petty case... and even after allowing the case to come forward, taking it easier on the guy, unless there was a minimum fine by law.

crazy. so many people in this world piggyback... i keep my router password protected so that no one can... I think that in this day/age of internet awareness, yadda, that the owner of a network has a responsibility to themselves when they choose to leave their network open or password protected....

Slamdunk said...

Perhaps, I just am missing something with this story, but it sounds like an extreme waste of resources to me as well.

fayezie.com said...

well, yeah, that's kinda what i meant too. was that from my experience with judges (limited experience, although they DO say judges in Georgia are a little different from other places), that they are pretty reasonable people, and in a case like this would be annoyed by just what you said, "a waste of resources"....meaning i'm surprised that a judge allowed the prosecutor to bring the case.

all the while, is kinda funny and scary at the same time... i don't think cops in savannah are going to start trolling the sidewalks asking to see people's laptops in order to inspect where their connection is coming from...

although i guess in the case of cops/inspecting yadda, they asked the guy and he answered by telling them. meaning, it was in essence his own words that got him in trouble, cause i'm sure the cop wouldn't have just gone straight to inspecting the laptop...

OR if the cop knew the law, perhaps just giving the guy some sort of warning... even the judge... knowing that this was a hidden law that the common public is not aware of, and simply telling the guy, "look, just be careful and don't let us catch you again..."

Slamdunk said...

Well said Fayezie. Hopefully, authorities realized how dumb this case was since I did not find any more current charges of the same nature.

I would add that the judge's hands were most likely ties in this instance. Since the case was a felony charge and the prosecutor decided to go forward with it, the judge's role was more like referee to ensure that both sides are following law. He/she may hate the law, but would still have to preside.

Behind the scenes, I am sure the judge was very active in encouraging the two sides to work out a reasonable deal. Though most penalities in this case would seem harsh, it appears that a fine and perhaps probation that would lead to dropping the charges would have been just peachy with the judge.

Unfortunately, if there was the potential for revenue in it for local authorities (which there does not seem to be now), they woudl most likely have their parking enforcement workers on the look out for Internet poachers as well.

I think residents from Savannah to up North are safe for now though.