Updated May 20
Under Penal Code 502 PC, California law makes unauthorized computer access a crime when it involves accessing another person’s or company’s computer, data, software, or a computer network without permission. This includes altering, damaging, deleting, destroying, or otherwise using any of the data. Prosecutors may charge this as a misdemeanor or a felony, and a conviction can be punished by up to 3 years in jail.
PC 502 (c) lists several ways in which a person can commit a crime. Some of these include:
- taking or copying data from a computer, computer system, or network without permission.
- introducing a computer virus into a computer, computer system, or computer network.
- altering or damaging any data or computer system to devise a scheme to defraud or wrongfully obtain money or property.
An accused can beat a charge under this statute with a legal defense. Common defenses include:
- no knowledge,
- consent to access, and/or,
- no fraud.
Most violations of these laws are wobbler offenses under California law. This means the crime can be charged as either:
- a misdemeanor, or
- a felony.
If a misdemeanor, the offense is punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to one year.
If a felony, the crime can lead to up to three years in custody.
In lieu of a jail or prison term, a judge can award a defendant with either:
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. What is a crime under this statute?
- 2. Are there legal defenses?
- 3. What are the Penal Code 502 penalties?
- 4. Can this lead to deportation?
- 5. Can a conviction be expunged?
- 6. Are gun rights affected?
- 7. Are there related offenses?
1. What is a crime under this statute?
A person commits a crime under this statute if he accesses the following without permission:
- a computer,
- software, or
- a computer network.1
It is also an offense for a person to access these items with the intent to:
- cause harm, or
- commit a crime.2
A person can also be charged under PC 502 if he helps someone else access a:
- computer system, or
- computer network.3
Note that a person is only guilty under these laws if he acted:
- without permission, and
Example: Marsha suspects her husband Dave is having an affair and is communicating with his mistress via his work email.
After a few tries, Marsha is able to guess his password for his work email. She uses it to log into his email and reads through it.
Here, Marsha is guilty under this statute. She entered her husband’s work network knowing she was doing so. She also did so without his permission.
This statute does list several ways a person can commit a crime. But someone can still commit an offense if he does some other wrongful act not highlighted in the law.5
2. Are there legal defenses?
A person accused under this statute can challenge the accusation with a legal defense.
Three common defenses are to show that:
- the defendant did not know what he was doing,
- the accused had someone’s consent to access the computer, and/or
- the defendant did not act fraudulently.
2.1. No knowledge
Recall that a person is only guilty under this statute if he acted knowingly. This means with the knowledge that he was unlawfully accessing a computer or computer network. Therefore, a defense if for an accused to say that he did not have this knowledge. Perhaps, for example, the accused got onto someone else’s computer by accident.
2.2. Consent to access
Also recall that an accused is only guilty of a crime if he acted without permission. This means it is a defense for a defendant to show he had consent to access a computer. Note, though, that this consent must come from someone authorized to provide it.
2.3. No fraud
Penal Code 502 makes it a crime for a person to unlawfully access a computer. It also makes it an offense to do so and also defraud someone.
“To defraud” means to deceive someone or trick them.
In these cases, it is a defense for an accused to say that:
- he did access a computer without permission, but
- he did so without an intent to defraud.
Perhaps, for example, he wanted to pull a prank and did not intend an illegal act.
3. What are the Penal Code 502 penalties?
Most violations of this statute are wobblers. A wobbler is an offense that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by:
- imprisonment in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $5,000.6
If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by:
- imprisonment for up to three years, and/or
- a maximum fine of $10,000.7
4. Can this lead to deportation?
Most Penal Code 502 convictions will not cause negative immigration consequences.
Some California crimes can lead to a non-citizen defendant being:
Most PC 502c crimes, though, are not these types of offenses.
5. Can a conviction be expunged?
A person can get an expungement if convicted under these laws.
A person can get an expungement if he completes:
- probation, or
- a jail term (whichever is applicable).
Note that a judge may even award expungement if a party violates a probation term.
6. Are gun rights affected?
A conviction under this statute may adversely affect a defendant’s gun rights.
California law says that it is illegal for convicted felons to:
- own a gun, or
- possess a gun.
This means a felony PC 502 conviction will strip away the defendant’s gun rights.
However, a misdemeanor conviction will not harm these rights.
7. Are there related offenses?
There are three crimes related to unauthorized computer access. These are:
- identity theft – PC 530.5
- credit card fraud, and
- grand theft – PC 487.
7.1. Identity theft – PC 530.5
Penal Code 530.5 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of identity theft. A person commits this offense when he:
- takes someone’s personal identifying information, and
- uses it in any unlawful or fraudulent manner.
Note that a person can be charged under PC 502c if he commits this offense via a computer.
7.2. Credit card fraud
California’s credit card fraud laws make it a crime for a person to:
- use a credit or access card to obtain money, goods or services, and
- do so when the person is not legally entitled to it.
Again, a person can be charged under PC 502c if he commits this offense via a computer.
7.3. Grand theft – PC 487
Penal Code 487 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of “grand theft.” A person commits this offense if:
- he takes someone else’s property, and
- the property is valued at $950.00 or more.
The person commits petty theft (per Penal Code 488 PC) if the property is valued under $950.00.
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
For information on similar crimes in Colorado, please see our article on: “Computer Crimes CRS 18-5.5-102.”