Damage to a Computer

A caller recently asked this: If a defendant throws another person’s computer against the wall and breaks it, can the defendant be charged with the felony of Damaging a Computer?

We probably all agree that this conduct constitutes injury to personal property. The question about the computer offense however sent me running to my book, NC Crimes (No, I can’t remember everything in it either!).

G.S. 14-455(a) makes it a crime to:

(1) willfully and

(2) without authorization

(3) alter, damage, or destroy

(4) a computer, computer program, computer system, computer network, or any part thereof.

The base offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor. G.S. 14-455(a). However, if the damage is more than $1,000, the offense is a Class G felony. Id. And of course, if the felony version is charged, the relevant amount of damage has to be alleged in the charging instrument and proved at trial.

So back to our example. The defendant willfully and without authorization altered, damaged, or destroyed a computer. I think that the General Assembly probably had viruses and hacking in mind when the statute was enacted, but there is nothing in the statute’s language that so limits its application.

Assuming that the misdemeanor version of the offense has been committed, there has to be alteration, damage, or destruction of more than $1,000 to make a felony. If the computer was destroyed and it was worth more than $1,000, that will probably do it. If it was damaged and there is a repair estimate at over $1,000, that will probably do it as well. In the caller’s example, the victim presented evidence that the original purchase price of the computer was more than $1,000. Given that we measure value for purposes of felony larceny by fair market value at the time of the offense, I’m not sure that evidence will suffice, particularly when new models and software quickly depreciate the value of even relatively new computers.

I don’t know of any cases on point so these are just my musings. Let me know if you have thoughts on the issue.

One comment on “Damage to a Computer

  1. Jessica, I would think that one would (or should) make the determination based upon the “depreciative” value of the computer or laptop, and any program(s) costs inclusive thereto.