In a case with wide-ranging implications, a jury in Las Vegas, Nevada returned a guilty verdict last week in the case against an Arizona identity thief online. The defendant, David Ray Camez was already serving a seven year state sentence for his crimes, when the federal government came in to charge him under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, more commonly referred to as RICO, by obtaining the first-ever conviction under the statute for digital crimes.
Enacted as part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, the RICO statute was originally intended as a mechanism to go after the mafia and organized crime rings by making all members of these organizations culpable for the crimes committed by all the other members of the group, so everyone from a low level thug to a don were all guilty for the sum total of the crimes perpetrated by the group.
To build this case, the Secret Service infiltrated an underground website frequented by identity thieves, and set themselves up as a vendor, providing fake IDs to the site’s users for use in credit card fraud. The “fake” IDs were flawless, as they were secretly being fabricated by Nevada’s DMV for the sting operation. Camez purchased a fake Arizona license from the undercover agent for $330.00.
Utilizing the RICO statute, Camez was found guilty, and therefore became jointly and severally liable for all of the crimes perpetrated by members of the website – estimated by the government to be more than $50 million in losses, and potentially carrying a 20 year prison sentence.
The case is particularly interesting in that it sets precedent for bringing similar RICO suits against anyone who participates in any illegal activity online. A person who bought a quarter ounce of marijuana on the Illicit website Silk Road for example, would be liable for all of the billions of dollars in transactions the site had facilitated whether they had direct involvement in each transaction or not, and potentially those who utilize torrent sites to download movies would be liable for the whole dollar value for all files ever transferred by the site in question.
While the existing laws regarding online theft and piracy have resulted in some well-publicized convictions and monetary penalties that range up to $250,000, with this new RICO precedent, the federal government has the ability to make the penalties for singular online crimes so disproportional that it’s reasonable to foresee it making a significant impact on online crimes like content piracy.
Downloading a song, TV show, movie or computer program from the a piracy site could potentially lead to decades in prison and billions of dollars liability if this line of legal argument is carried to its logical conclusion. Certainly no rational adult would subject themselves to the specter of decades in prison just to steal a song or video game – and now that may be a real risk of doing so.