Eleventh Circuit Upholds Sentence for Hacking Florida A&M University Online Grading System – U.S. v. Barrington

August 15, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

As a cyber crime criminal defense attorney in Florida, I was very interested to see an appeals court decision on the sentence of a Florida hacker. United States v. Marcus Barrington grew out of the case of three Florida A&M University students who tried to hack into their school’s grading system in order to change grades, add credits and change residency status for themselves and several friends. Barrington and his co-conspirators used keylogger software, which tracks every key pressed on a keyboard, to discover username/password combinations for people in the school registrar’s office. Barrington was ultimately charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud using a protected computer; accessing a protected computer with intention to defraud; and three counts of aggravated identity theft. He appealed those convictions as well as his sentence of seven years in prison.

Barrington was accused of conspiring with Christopher Jacquette and Lawrence Seacrease to change information in the registrar’s office computers. After it became clear that they were under investigation, they started changing grades for students they didn’t know, but continued to change their own as well. In all, they caused more than 650 grade changes for 90 students, and the cost of the grade and residency changes totaled $137,000. Eventually, investigators obtained search warrants and found evidence including usernames and passwords of registrar employees. Jacquette and Seacrease pleaded and became government witnesses; Barrington fought the charges in court, saying he was present but otherwise not involved in the conspiracy. This was rebutted by Barrington’s own Rule 11 proffer as well as testimony from a friend whose grades he had changed. He was convicted.

On appeal, Barrington argued that testimony on his prior offline grade-changing was inadmissible; that testimony of a pending burglary charge against Jacquette should have been admitted; and that the evidence was insufficient on the identity theft counts. None of these arguments held water with the Eleventh Circuit. The prior grade-changing was also done at Florida A&M, but with physical forms rather than online; indeed, the online grade-changing was undertaken after the conspirators ran out of forms. Thus, the court said, it was fair for prosecutors to use it to show Barrington’s intent. Nor did the trial court err when it barred testimony about Jacquette’s pending burglary case, the Eleventh said, since the case was unrelated to Barrington’s prosecution and Jacquette’s testimony would not affect the likelihood of his conviction for burglary. On the identity theft counts, Barrington argued that the usernames and passwords were university property and not personally identifying information, but the appeals court disagreed. Under the relevant law, it said, a username and password is “means of identification.” After dismissing with arguments relating to sentencing, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the trial court on all counts.

As an identity theft criminal defense lawyer, I’m always interested to see a federal appeals case on counts like wire fraud and accessing a protected computer. Most hacking cases are about money — stealing credit card numbers or other protected data to sell to identity thieves. In this case, it could be argued that the hacking was a fraternity prank gone way too far, although of course, changing grades is also a kind of profit-seeking. Notably, Barrington’s seven-year sentence is much longer than the 22-month sentences of his co-conspirators, both of whom cooperated with the government. Whether to take a plea deal is a very important decision with a lot of factors involved, including what you are offered in exchange and personal relationships. But as an hacking criminal defense attorney, I would advise any defendant as young as Barrington to seriously consider a fair deal that could shave so much time from the sentence.

Seltzer Law, P.A. focuses its practice on defending people accused of online and computer crimes. If you or someone you love is accused of hacking, soliciting a child online or other technology crimes, call us today to discuss how we can help. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us an email or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

Similar blog posts:

Defendant’s Invocation of Fifth Amendment Slows Prosecution in Stolen Data Case

California Man Charged With Hacking Women’s Computers and Extorting Lewd Images

College Student Accused of Hacking Sarah Palin’s Email Account Convicted of Hacking