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Feds Won't File Charges In School Laptop-Spy Case 398

jamie writes "Federal prosecutors have decided not to file charges against a Philadelphia school district or its employees over the use of software to remotely monitor students. From the article: 'US Attorney Zane David Memeger says investigators have found no evidence of criminal intent by Lower Merion School District employees who activated tracking software that took thousands of webcam and screenshot images on school-provided laptops.'"
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Feds Won't File Charges In School Laptop-Spy Case

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  • by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @08:30PM (#33283182)
    Before everyone gets outraged, the fact that the fed won't file charges on it doesn't mean the case is dropped. In fact, I think that the fact that the feds aren't filing charges is really the right thing to do, the goal wasn't criminal, its a civil matter and thus should be settled in civil court with such charges of fraud, breach of contract, etc.
  • Re:So preventable (Score:4, Informative)

    by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @08:40PM (#33283250)

    Oh no! Duct tape, electrical tape or pink duct tape on the built in webcam! Problem solved!

    If you had been following the case you would know that students were expressly forbidden to put tape over the camera. They would have been punished had they done it.

  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @08:46PM (#33283300)

    since when was there a need to prove "criminal intent" before prosecuting someone?

    Always. Criminal guilt carries to elements:

    Actus reus = the guilty act
    Mens rea = the guilty mind

    This is why "insanity" is a valid defense (there is no guilty mind) and why we don't put children or animals in jail (they are amoral, and cant have a guilty mind).

    There are crimes that dont require mens rea (called "strict liability") but they are usually either minor offenses, or when the actor is taking one some obviously large risk that requires a very high standard of care (like when transporting hazardous waste). ... or statutory rape.

  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:5, Informative)

    by cappp ( 1822388 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @08:46PM (#33283308)
    Some crimes require mens rae [wikipedia.org] which is criminal intent. Others are Strict Liability - think statuatory rape - meaning that intent doesn't matter. In both cases there exists Prosecutorial Discretion [wikipedia.org] which does what it says on the box - lets prosecutors chose whether or not to go after a defendant.

    So there's been no judgment as to the actual legality of the issues at question, the prosecutor has just decided not to bring suit. In some situations that seems to be the fairer idea - 18yr old having sex with her 17yr old long term partnet being the most cited example - but there's obviously room for a lot of unfairness.
  • Re:Thank God (Score:3, Informative)

    by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @09:13PM (#33283528)

    This would really harm the students and the county as a hole.

    You know what? It sounds like your county already is a hole. I certainly won't be moving there, and I don't even have kids.

  • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Informative)

    by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @09:20PM (#33283594)
    No -- in the USA, only a prosecutor can file criminal charges. People sometimes say here, "I'm going to press charges," but that really just means cooperating with a prosecutor or attorney general. If your father punches you in a drunken fight, and you tell the cops you don't want to file charges, you better hope they want to cooperate... They can charge, or not charge, whoever they want. You have no control over it.
  • Maybe they could. (Score:5, Informative)

    by MokuMokuRyoushi ( 1701196 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @09:29PM (#33283660) Journal
    In fact, I believe that's what they originally intended to file the lawsuit for.

    The Associated Press reports that the lawsuit alleges that the cameras captured images of Harriton High School students and their families as they undressed and in other compromising situations.

    Taken from this source [usatoday.com]

  • by Ungrounded Lightning ( 62228 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @09:32PM (#33283676) Journal

    Congratulations. Your school board has taught children that there is a double standard. One law for the citizens. And a different law for anyone who works for the government.

    That's something they should learn early. It will prepare them better for life.

    Just think: If they didn't get lessons like this they might believe in all that "Constitution" and "Equal Protection" stuff. They might even get angry and join tinfoil-hat wingnuts like the Tea Party movement, and try to throw out government officials with a more realistic understanding of how politics works.



  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @09:49PM (#33283792)

    Involuntary manslaughter still requires a component of recklessness or disregard, and specifies that the accused willfully engaged in conduct knowing that the conduct carried the risk of serious injury or death (intoxication is specifically disallowed as a defense here in most jurisdictions). The recklessness is the mens rea. Otherwise it was merely an accident (though there might still be civil liability as far as wrongful death goes).

    There are also murder statutes with strict liability, which are merely a list of specific behaviors that trigger liability, mens rea or not.

  • Legal definition? (Score:3, Informative)

    by SpeedyDX ( 1014595 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <xineohpydeeps>> on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @10:23PM (#33284054)

    Not quite sure whether the prosecutor was using the laymen definition or legal definition of criminal intent, the article is sparse and the prosecutor was smart enough to use an ambiguous term. The laymen definition of criminal intent is something like wanting to do something evil, or wanting to commit some sort of crime. The legal definition (in Canada, but should be similar in US) of criminal intent (or mens rea) is simply that you intended to do (or should have known that your actions would lead to you doing) whatever it is that is prohibited by law. Notice that you don't need to know that you are doing something against the law, you just need to know (or should know) you are doing that thing, which as an objective fact happens to be against the law. In this case, the question shouldn't be whether or not they had some evil ends in mind when they spied on the children, but it should rather be whether or not they intended to spy on or knew that their actions would lead to spying on the children.

    In your example, the question is not whether you are intending to break the law by going 55mph in a 35mph zone, the question is simply whether you intended to go 55mph (while you were in a 35mph zone, but you don't need to know that fact to have mens rea). This excuses cases like accelerator malfunctions where you're going 55mph as a result partially because of your actions (you stepped on the accelerator) but didn't know or couldn't have known that your action would result in going 55mph (since you couldn't have known about your car's malfunction).

  • by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @10:30PM (#33284132)

    The parents have no legal ability to do so. Only attorneys of the state and federal government district attorneys offices have the ability to press criminal charges.

    A private person cannot personally press criminal charges, nor can a private person hire an attorney to press criminal charges.

    This is what allows the entire concept of a plea bargain to exist.

    The federal or state prosecutor's office with jurisdiction has the sole authority to decide whether charges will be pressed or not.

    If private people could press charges, there wouldn't be plea bargains, since "someone else" might decide to chime in and press the charges again. Thus the "bargain" would not be a bargain at all.

    Murderers or Bandits caught by police could pay people under the table to prosecute them and do a slipshod job... since due to the constitution 5th amendment, noone can be twice put under jeapordy of life and limb.

  • Re:Just because... (Score:3, Informative)

    by BitterOak ( 537666 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @10:37PM (#33284194)

    No -- in the USA, only a prosecutor can file criminal charges. People sometimes say here, "I'm going to press charges," but that really just means cooperating with a prosecutor or attorney general. If your father punches you in a drunken fight, and you tell the cops you don't want to file charges, you better hope they want to cooperate... They can charge, or not charge, whoever they want. You have no control over it.

    If you read the GPs post, you'll see (s)he said "Just because the feds won't file charges doesn't mean the students themselves or the local DA or state AG can't file civil or criminal charges." [emphasis added.]

    I think the GP meant that the students would file the civil suits, and state or local prosecutors would file criminal charges.

    Personally, I didn't think this case would amount to anything. Only one family claimed their kid was spied on, and what little evidence there was points to a misunderstanding. I've said so from the beginning, and I'm not surprised about this development.

  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:5, Informative)

    by EvanED ( 569694 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [denave]> on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @10:46PM (#33284258)

    While intent and motive can go a long way in helping to prove guilt, neither are by no means necessary. I can commit a crime (and get convicted) without ever intending to have commuted it.

    That's true, but not nearly as true as you make it sound. There are two reasons that you'd be convicted:

    1) The crime is what's called a "strict liability" crime -- this is one that doesn't require intent. However, most crimes are not strict liability -- more on that in a sec.

    2) The jury didn't believe that you didn't have intent. This is much more likely.

    IANAL, but I have done a bit of reading of some legal stuff (it was a side interest of mine back as an undergrad). The lawyerfolk will talk about two aspects to crimes -- the "actus reus" ("guilty act") and the "mens rea [wikipedia.org]" ("guilty mind"). The actus reus is the actual thing you did -- punch someone, shoplift a CD, or wiretap. The mens rea describes your state of mind. This is where, say, a negligent homicide differs from a murder. The actus reus is the same in each case, but what matters is your intent.

    Most crimes require that you have a substantial amount of intent -- you either "purposely" or "knowingly" carry out the act. Some crimes have a lower burden -- you either "recklessly" or "negligently" carry out the action. There really aren't that many crimes that have no mens rea requirement (the "strict liability" crimes, as mentioned above).

    To go to the shoplifting example, let's say you have a backpack/bag/etc you're carrying around. If you accidentally knock a CD into your bag, see it's there, and think "oh, I can walk out with that", you're committing theft because you're knowingly walking out the door with it. If you accidentally knock a CD into your bag, don't notice it, and walk out the door, you're not committing theft because the mens rea isn't there. Whether a jury would buy your excuse that you didn't know it was there is another matter entierly.

    (Similarly, "inchoate" crimes -- attempt and conspiracy mostly -- are somewhat the opposite of strict liability crimes. There the offense is almost all the mens rea, and you needn't have committed the actus reus yet. That is a bit of a lie, because you need to have done something concrete, even for inchoate crimes.)

  • Re:Just because... (Score:3, Informative)

    by deblau ( 68023 ) <slashdot.25.flickboy@spamgourmet.com> on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @10:59PM (#33284352) Journal
    You seem to have missed the parent's post. There are two kinds of legal systems in the US: state and federal. If the federal prosecutor doesn't prosecute based on federal laws, the state prosecutor can still prosecute based on violations of state law.
  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:4, Informative)

    by EvanED ( 569694 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [denave]> on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @11:01PM (#33284376)

    Yes, but doesn't the law also have some concept of "sufficiently advance stupidity is indistinguishable from intent"? Like if I go around shooting out car windows and accidentally pick one with a person in it and kill them, I can be charged with murder or manslaughter, despite the fact that I did not *intend* to kill anyone, just vandalize cars.

    There is this level of sanity in the legal system, right?

    Yes and no. There is not any general concept of "sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from intent", however many specific acts have multiple distinct offenses with differing mens rea requirements.

    To use your example of homicide, there are of course several grades. A typical one might have first degree murder, second degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter. First degree murder would be reserved if you had premeditated your killing -- going around shooting in random car windows would not count. (The "pre" part of "premeditation" doesn't have to be long at all, just for clarification. Doesn't mean you have to have slept on the decision, just that you had time to think about it a little.) Much more likely you'd find yourself charged with second degree murder. That typically has wording like you killed someone "with reckless indifference to the value of human life" -- for instance shooting a gun at cars in the streets in your town. Possibly you'd find yourself charged with manslaughter, which has an even lesser mens rea requirement, usually "plain" recklessness.

    So you don't always need specific intent in order to commit a crime, and things like recklessness and negligence sometimes can count, but they don't by default. The offenses are specifically written to use those lower standards, and will have a lower grade than what is basically the same offense with a higher amount of culpability.

  • by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @11:03PM (#33284394)
    First of all this article is about federal law, the wiretapping law cases you are referencing are about state laws. Additionally, you are wrong, Pennsylvania judges have consistently ruled that recording the police in the performance of their duty is not a violation of Pennsylvania's wiretapping law (which is an all parties consent law), since the police do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they are on duty (one of the deciding factors in whether or not you need someone's consent to record them under PA law).
    We have yet to see what decision will be made by the various state prosecutors on this case. If this case was in Maryland on the other hand there is reason to believe you would be correct.
  • by way2trivial ( 601132 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @11:25PM (#33284560) Homepage Journal

    http://criminal.lawyers.com/Criminal-Law-Basics/Murder-During-the-Commission-of-a-Felony.html [lawyers.com]

    Felony Murder Rule
    Most forms of murder require an intent to commit death. Felony murder only requires the intent to commit the felony. During the course of the felony, any homicide will be considered murder, whether it's intentional or accidental. This is called the felony murder rule.

    Under the felony murder rule, all participants of a felony can be charged with murder if a homicide occurs. This is true even if a participant isn't directly responsible for the death. For example, the driver of a getaway car can be charged with felony murder if his partner accidently shoots someone while attempting to rob a bank. The purpose for the felony murder rule is to deter people from engaging in felonies knowing that they can be liable for the actions of their partners.

  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Tuesday August 17, 2010 @11:28PM (#33284578) Homepage Journal

    Deleting child porn can be construed as knowingly destroying evidence of a crime. I can't speak for amusement parks or the legalities of what they may or may not do, but I know that deleting such images without a really strong backing is asking for trouble.

    This is one of the things that's dealt with in network security, particularly incident management, and words are rarely minced when it is brought up. Work in the field long enough, and the chances are high that you'll stumble across it. (I've been fortunate not to have done so, but others I know have not been so lucky.) Upon finding it, the first thing that you do is call legal counsel. The second thing is get in touch with law enforcement (probably through your legal counsel).

    In most cases, all investigation stops until they show up, because merely viewing them may be construed as a crime. You did not take, store, nor send them, but you did open the file(s), and opening other files where you've already found child porn means that you know or should know that there's a high likelihood that there are others. In the meantime, you don't show anyone else, call anyone over to verify, and you don't move, copy, or save them anywhere else, and you absolutely do not delete them. You just take notes, and wait for your attorney(s) and the guys with guns to show up.

  • Re:Just because... (Score:3, Informative)

    by BitterOak ( 537666 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @12:00AM (#33284758)

    And there was *no* misunderstanding. The vice principal was monitoring the kids at their homes without notification to the students or the parents that the monior system could, and would, be used for such monitoring. This gets directly into basic constitutional issues of privacy: there's nothing to "misunderstand" there, unless you're a mid-level bureaucrat with not the least concern for both published and legal guidelines and precedent.

    According to the school, this was only done in the case of stolen or missing laptops. I think you give up a right to privacy when you steal a computer. The family that sued the school did so because the school found an image on a returned computer that concerned the administration, but turned out to be harmless. The parents jumped to the conclusion that the image was obtained via the remote monitoring system. No evidence was later introduced to back up the parents' claim.

  • Re:Just because... (Score:3, Informative)

    by BitZtream ( 692029 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @01:24AM (#33285096)

    While you are partially correct, the prosecutor can opt out if you do not file a complaint.

    Once a complaint has been filed it must be acted upon, of course it has to meet certain prerequisites like having some actual likely hood of being true and a crime having been committed.

    The prosecutor simply has the option of filing a complaint themselves if you don't.

  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:3, Informative)

    by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @01:24AM (#33285102)

    This is why [] we don't put children [] in jail (they are amoral, and cant have a guilty mind)."

    Except we do [wsws.org]. I always think about this when people express shock and disgust at Mullahs marrying off 13-year-olds. We shouldn't prosecute criminal children as adults either, and for the same reasons.

  • Re:Just because... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Toonol ( 1057698 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @04:29AM (#33285494)
    From the thirteen year old girl's testimony: After polanski had fed her champagne and a quaalude, the victim testified that Polanski told her to go into a nearby bedroom and lie down.

    A: I was going, 'No, I think I better go home,' because I was afraid. So I just went and I sat down on the couch.
    Q: What were you afraid of?
    A: Him.
    (a few minutes later)
    A: He sat down beside me and asked me if I was OK.
    Q: What did you say, if anything?
    A: I said, 'No.'
    Q: What did he say?
    A: He goes, 'Well, you'll be better.' And I go, 'No, I won't. I have to go home.'
    Q: What happened then?
    A: He reached over and he kissed me. And I was telling him, 'No,' you know, 'Keep away.'

    After Polanski kissed her, the victim alleged, he began to engage in oral sex.
    A: ... I was ready to cry. I was kind of -- I was going, 'No. Come on. Stop it.' But I was afraid.
    Q: And what did he say, if anything?
    A: He wasn't saying anything that I can remember. He was -- sometimes he was saying stuff, but I was just blocking him out, you know.

    The victim testified that Polanski began having sex with her, but sodomized her when he learned she wasn't using birth control.
    A: He asked, he goes, 'Are you on the pill?' And I went, 'No.' And he goes, 'When did you last have your period?' And I said, I don't know. A week or two. I'm not sure.'
    Q: And what did he say?
    A: He goes, 'Come on. You have to remember.' And I told him I didn't.
    Q: Did he say anything after that?
    A: Yes. He goes, 'Would you want me to go through your back? And I went, 'No.'

    The victim testified that after the sex, she got dressed and waited in the car for Polanski to drive her home. Before driving her home, he asked her to keep the incident a secret.
    A: He said to me, he goes, 'Oh, don't tell your mother about this.' ...
    Q: What did you say?
    A: I wasn't saying anything. He says, 'Don't tell your mother about this and don't tell your boyfriend either.' ... He said something like, 'This is our secret.' And I went, 'Yeah.' And then later he said, 'You know, when I first met you I promised myself I wouldn't do anything like this with you.'

    There's a damn good reason that we don't always let victims drop charges. It could result in people who DRUG AND ANALLY RAPE THIRTEEN YEAR OLD GIRLS getting off without being punished.

    Anyway, now you know that your description of what happened is wrong, and so I hope you're intellectually honest enough to never portray Polanski in that favorable of a light again.
  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:4, Informative)

    by delinear ( 991444 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @05:07AM (#33285678)

    That is true, but "guilty mind" is misleading - it doesn't necessarily mean that you had to intend a crime, just that you intended the action. For instance, if you were completely unaware that murder was a crime and you purposely shoot someone with the intent to kill, even though you didn't intend a crime you are still guilty of both the act and the intent.

    Furthermore, while the court has to find you guilty beyond reasonable doubt for criminal convictions, it can use the "reasonable man" (i.e. on the balance of probabilities what would the reasonable man have thought or done) in establishing mens rea - therefore even if these officials didn't intend to break the law, breaking the law was an obvious outcome of their actions and the reasonable man would have recognised that before acting. I don't see any issue with proving guilt on both parts here, I guess "think of the children" only applies when it's being used to force through unpopular security theatre, not when it's being used as a defence against it.

  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Patch86 ( 1465427 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @05:21AM (#33285734)

    While true "mens rae" doesn't neccessarily have to mean that you understand the law you're breaking, only that you intended the action that broke the law. Ignorance is not an excuse, as they say.

    So for examble, shooting someone with a gun. If it's a complete accident, and no-one is to blame, that's OK. If you are to blame, that's negligence. If you aimed at someone and fired, that's GBH/murder. Even if you were completely and honestly unaware that shooting people was illegal, it'd still be GBH/murder if you shot the person on purpose.

    So in the case we're talking about- invasion of privacy is a crime. The school intentionally invaded the pupils' privacy by, very deliberately, rigging up a remote camera activation programme and activating it. It doesn't matter one jot whether the school knew there was a law against this- only that they did it on purpose.

    The only valid defense based on "intent" would be if they had not intended to put this intrusive software on these mandatory laptops, and had definitely not intended to activate it. As far as I'm aware, this is not their defense.

  • Re:criminal intent? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @08:25AM (#33286496)

    Do you realize how many of the kids doing what you say actually have been prosecuted for creating, distributing, or possessing kiddy porn? Do a search. It happens. Not many get caught, so it isn't common, but it certainly happens.

  • Re:"Intent"? (Score:3, Informative)

    by delt0r ( 999393 ) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:04AM (#33286824)
    We have a lot more options than just not voting. The vote is only a small part of representative democracy.

"I have not the slightest confidence in 'spiritual manifestations.'" -- Robert G. Ingersoll