A New Jersey federal appeals court overturned the conviction of Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer on Friday. Auernheimer was previously sentenced to three and a half years in prison under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act after he hacked into and exposed a security flaw in AT&T’s website.
Auernheimer’s conviction gained national attention after many in the tech community said it set a precedent that compromised the role of hackers in the online security community. Hackers often attempt to break into websites with the intent of discovering security weaknesses; they then report these weaknesses to the involved companies and the media so that they can be fixed before hackers with bad intentions discover the flaws.
Auernheimer’s conviction wasn’t overturned on these grounds, though. Perhaps, not wanting to deal with the time involved in ruling in a precedent-setting case, the court dropped Auernheimer’s charges because the state he was being charged in – New Jersey – was not directly targeted by his hacks. Auernheimer was in Arkansas at the time of the hacks, and the servers he broke into were located in Atlanta, Ga., and Dallas, Texas.
“Venue in criminal cases is more than a technicality; it involves ‘matters that touch closely the fair administration of criminal justice and public confidence in it,’” the judges wrote in their opinion. “This is especially true of computer crimes in the era of mass interconnectivity. Because we conclude that venue did not lie in New Jersey, we will reverse the District Court’s venue determination and vacate Auernheimer’s conviction.
“The founders were so concerned with the location of a criminal trial that they placed the venue requirement … in the Constitution in two places,” the judges continued. “They did so for good reason. A defendant who has been convicted ‘in a distant, remote, or unfriendly forum solely at the prosecutor’s whim,’… has had his substantial rights compromised.”
“The court determined that the Department of Justice brought this case in the wrong district," Matthew Reilly, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey, said. "We’re reviewing our options.”
It is not clear if prosecutors will try to bring Auernheimer on trial again in a more appropriate district.