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Supreme Court Limits Reach of Federal Law on Computer Crime

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday narrowed the scope of a federal law that makes it a crime to gain access to computer files without authorization. By a 6-to-3 vote, the court sided with a former police officer in Georgia who used his position to search digital license-plate records for an illicit purpose.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the majority opinion, which featured an unusual coalition made up of the other two justices appointed by President Donald J. Trump and the court’s three-member liberal wing.

The officer, Nathan Van Buren, agreed to search the license-plate records in exchange for a $5,000 payment from a man who turned out to be an F.B.I. informant. Though Mr. Van Buren’s job gave him access to the database, his search on that occasion violated department policy because it was not done in connection with his duties.

Mr. Van Buren was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, a federal law that makes it illegal “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.”

He was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Justice Barrett, writing for the majority, said Mr. Van Buren’s conduct was not a crime under the 1986 law.

The Supreme Court: Upcoming Cases

    • A Big Month. June is peak season for Supreme Court decisions. It is the final month of the court’s annual term, and the justices tend to save their biggest decisions for the term’s end.
    • 4 Big Cases. The court is set to rule on the fate of Obamacare, as well as a case that could determine scores of laws addressing election rules in the coming years. It is also taking on a case involving religion and gay rights and one on whether students may be disciplined for what they say on social media (here’s an audio report on that subject; and here’s where public opinion stands on several of the big cases).
    • What to Watch For. The approaches that Amy Coney Barrett, the newest justice, and Brett Kavanaugh, the second-newest, take. They will be crucial because the three liberal justices now need at least two of the six conservatives to form a majority. Before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberals needed only one conservative.
    • Looking Ahead. Next year’s term, which will start in the fall, will have cases on abortion, guns and perhaps affirmative action, and could end up being the most significant term so far under Chief Justice John Roberts.

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