Case Summaries – U.S. Supreme Court (June 1-3, 2021)

This post summarizes decisions released by the United States Supreme Court on June 1, 2021 and June 3, 2021. These summaries, written by Shea Denning and Brittany Williams, will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present.

Tribal officer was authorized to detain and search non-Indian suspect on public highway on reservation based on the tribe’s inherent sovereign authority to address conduct that threatens or affects tribe’s health or welfare.

United States v. Cooley, 593 U.S. ___ (June 1, 2021). The respondent in this case, a non-Indian, was detained and searched by a tribal police officer on a public highway that traversed the Crow Reservation in Montana. The officer discovered the respondent in his truck on the roadside, noticed that he had watery, bloodshot eyes and saw two semiautomatic rifles in his front seat. The officer detained the defendant and seized the guns and the drugs that he later discovered in the respondent’s truck. The respondent was federally indicted for drug and gun offenses. The trial court suppressed the drug evidence on the basis that the tribal officer lacked the authority to investigate nonapparent violations of law by a non-Indian on a public right of way on the reservation. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

A unanimous Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s judgment.

The Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Breyer, held that the officer was authorized to detain and search the respondent based on the tribe’s inherent sovereign authority to address conduct that threatens or has some direct effect on the health or welfare of the tribe. This authority is an exception to the general proposition that the inherent sovereign powers of an Indian tribe do not extend to the activities of nonmembers. The Court explained that to deny a tribal police officer the authority to detain and search a person the officer believes may commit or has committed a crime would make it difficult for tribes to protect themselves against ongoing threats. Earlier cases denying tribal jurisdiction over the activities of non-Indians on a reservation relied in part on the fact that applying full tribal jurisdiction would subject non-Indians to tribal law they had no role in creating. The tribal officer’s detention and search of the respondent, in contrast, did not subject him to tribal law, but instead to state and federal laws that apply whether the person is outside the reservation or on a state or federal highway within it. Finally, the Court rejected the argument that existing federal statutes granting tribes limited authority to enforce federal law divested tribes of this sovereign authority.

Justice Alito concurred, stating that he joined the opinion of the Court with the understanding that it only held the following:  On a public right-of-way that traverses an Indian reservation and is primarily patrolled by tribal police, a tribal officer may (a) stop a non-Indian motorist based on reasonable suspicion of a violation of state or federal law; (b) search to the extent necessary to protect the officer and others; and (c) if the officer has probable cause, detain the motorist for the period of time reasonably necessary for a non-tribal officer to arrive.


The “exceeds authorized access” clause under the CFAA applies only to those who obtain information to which their computer access does not extend, not to those who misuse access that they otherwise have.

Van Buren v. United States, 593 U. S. ____ (June 3, 2021). The defendant, during his time as a police sergeant in Georgia, used his patrol car computer to run a license plate search in the law enforcement database in exchange for money. The defendant’s conduct was in violation of his department’s policy, which authorized access to database information only for law enforcement purposes. The federal government charged the defendant with a felony violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for “exceeding authorized access.” The defendant was convicted in district court, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The CFAA subjects to criminal liability anyone who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access.” 18 U. S. C. § 1030(a)(2). The term “exceeds authorized access” is defined to mean “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.” § 1030(e)(6).

The Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Barrett, did not dispute that the phrase “exceeds authorized access” readily encompasses the defendant’s conduct, but concluded that the defendant did not exceed his authorized access as the CFAA defines that phrase. The Court resolved that the phrase “is not entitled so to obtain” plainly refers to information that a person is not entitled to obtain, specifically by using a computer that he is authorized to access. The Court also noted that a broad interpretation of the statute would criminalize a wide array of commonplace computer activity.

The Court held that the “exceeds authorized access” clause covers those who obtain information from particular areas in the computer to which their computer access does not extend, but does not cover those who have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them. Because the defendant had authorization to use the system to retrieve license plate information, he did not exceed authorized access within the meaning of the CFAA, even though he obtained the information for an improper purpose.

Justice Thomas, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, dissented, declining to give the statute any limiting function and choosing to rely on the plain meaning of the phrase.

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