March 15, 2013 | By Trevor Timm

Aaron Swartz’s Lawyers Accuse Prosecutors of Misconduct; Help the Next Aaron By Reforming the CFAA

On Wednesday, the Huffington Post reported that lawyers for the late Aaron Swartz have officially accused his prosecutor Steven Heymann of misconduct.

From Huffington Post:

In the document, [Aaron’s lawyer] argues that Heymann withheld exculpatory evidence. At issue was whether the federal government had properly obtained a warrant to search Swartz' computer and thumb drive. Peters argued that the government failed by waiting more than a month to obtain the warrant. Heymann countered that he couldn't get a warrant because he didn't have access to the equipment. But an email in Heymann's possession, which was written to Heymann himself, showed that assertion to be untrue.

The complaint, filed by Aaron’s lawyers in late January, also notes that the attempts to coerce Aaron into accepting plea bargain were improper, and beyond the bounds of the guidelines for prosecutors.  It also “makes additional charges that cannot be revealed because the government fought for a protective order that keeps case information secret,” according to Huffington Post. Aaron’s lawyers are in the process of trying to lift the protective order.

Take action to fix computer crime law.

The prosecutor’s office has received widespread criticism from across the  political spectrum for its aggressive pursuit of Aaron since his death in January and two separate Congressional investigations are currently looking into this alleged abuse.  We hope that the DOJ stops its knee-jerk defense of the prosecutors here and instead takes a hard look at what happened in response to the Complaint and takes the necessary steps for internal reform. Clearly, this has also resonated with the American public, as two White House petitions criticizing the prosecution have garnered over 100,000 signatures.

But prosecutorial overreach, especially in computer cases, did not start with Aaron’s case, and it has long been a problem.

Congress has the chance to right some of those wrongs. Besides continuing the investigation into misconduct and publishing the results, Congress should take steps to prevent a situation like Aaron’s from happening in the future by reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA)—the main statute used against Aaron.  Most specifically, the reforms to the penalty provisions – removing duplicative claims and creating misdemeanor space for actions that have no commercial goal or cause no harm -- could help ensure that prosecutors can’t threaten a defendant with punishments that are far out of proportion to the crime.

The CFAA has a real role in helping deter and respond to actual computer crime, but it’s lost its moorings. EFF has identified three specific fixes to the CFAA that would protect ordinary Internet users, security researchers, and activists, while still providing tough penalties to real cyber-criminals—like those who steal credit card numbers or do real damage to infrastructure—which you can read about here.  Tell Congress now is the time to reform the law.

Meanwhile, in celebration of Sunshine Week, the American Library Association has announced it will posthumously honor Aaron Swartz with its James Madison Freedom of Information award.  

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