Lauri has reasonable fears that he would be treated far worse in the United States than he would in the United Kingdom, for both political and personal reasons.
The nature of prosecution in the United States, where 91% of federal criminal cases ended in a plea bargain rather than a jury trial in 2001, is very different from that which prevails in the United Kingdom. Prosecutors have much greater discretion and the plea bargaining process encourages prosecutors to lay a large number of serious charges, knowing that few are ever likely to be considered by a jury.
This imbalance is exacerbated in cases involving online activism or political motivations, both at play in Lauri’s case. When the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is charged, the victim of an alleged offence has a great deal of discretion in assessing what their losses were. These do not need to be limited to the direct costs of remedying the damage of the alleged actions and, given that above the level of 5000 US dollars in losses, an offence under the CFAA becomes a felony, there is an incentive for prosecutors to make the figure as large as possible in order to secure a plea bargain.
Digital crimes have become highly politicised, particularly under the Obama Administration. The CFAA harshly penalizes what would be minor offenses if they had happened offline. So whereas a sit-in demonstration would likely incur a trespassing misdemeanor, its online counterpart, a DDoS, is classified as fraud and prosecuted under the CFAA as a felony that can land protesters in jail for years, if not decades. Lauri Love is charged with several counts under the CFAA — and his legal team says he potentially faces 99 years in jail.
Prosecutors in digital cases can further threaten long prison sentences by charging in multiple jurisdictions if alleged targets are based in different locations. In a public statement accompanying his guilty plea to a CFAA count, Courage beneficiary Jeremy Hammond stated that he was threatened with charges in further US court districts should he be found not guilty at trial in the Southern District of New York. Lauri Love, unusually, faces separate extradition requests from three US court districts (Virginia, New York and New Jersey), strongly suggesting he can expect the same kind of prosecutorial coercion that Jeremy Hammond faced.
Perhaps the most widely known case of CFAA overprosecution is that of Aaron Swartz. Swartz – a hugely talented and prolific coder and activist – committed suicide on 11 January 2013, after relentless persecution by the US justice system over allegations concerning the mass downloading of academic articles he had been entitled to access. His family described their loss as “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” over “an alleged crime that had no victims.” Despite Swartz’s suicide, the government continues its practice of overcharging to secure convictions.
Denial of bail and limited access to discovery
Jeremy Hammond spent 21 months in jail before his trial began. He was denied bail, despite offering home confinement, electronic monitoring, and a complete ban on computer access — his judge claimed he was more dangerous than a sex offender committing crimes online because such criminals don’t “hide their identities” as Jeremy did.
During these nearly two years in pretrial confinement, Jeremy Hammond was also denied access to his discovery evidence by the prison , logging only 11 hours of access to the laptop which contained the relevant files between 13 February 2013 and 10 April 2013. This severely compromised his ability to defend himself properly. Given that defendants who have been extradited are routinely denied bail in the United States, Lauri Love could reasonably expect to be treated similarly, with similar consequences.
Sentencing and prison treatment
Unsurprisingly, disproportionate prosecutions lead to disproportionate sentences. Under the Obama Administration, whistleblowers – many of whom have used the internet to achieve their goals and were subsequently charged with the CFAA – have been sentenced to a total of 751 months in prison, compared to 24 months for all other presidents combined. Jeremy Hammond’s eventual sentence, at 120 months, was nearly four times longer than the longest sentence received by any of his co-defendants in the United Kingdom. The discrepancy between Hammond’s sentence and those of his Irish co-defendants, who were spared prison time altogether, is even more stark.
Digital activists have been further retaliated against while in prison. Jeremy Hammond has had his family visitation rights, commissary access and email/phone communication access revoked or severely restricted for minor offenses or even for no offense at all — at one point he was disciplined and threatened with transfer for “conducting a business” because supporters outside the prison, without his direction, raised donations on his behalf.
Furthermore, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown and Andrew Auenheimer have all been subjected to solitary confinement during their sentences. Solitary confinement is used widely in American prisons despite being condemned by the United Nations and major international human rights organizations as a form of psychological torture. Healthcare is not easily accessible in solitary confinement and treatment is often denied to segregated inmates. Lauri, already suffering from mental health issues that kept him out of school for more than a year, would be at dire risk in that kind of environment.
Lauri’s extradition to the United States is not a foregone conclusion — despite the massive disparity in the extradition treaty across the Atlantic, such requests have been blocked before, such as in the case of Gary McKinnon. We can stop Lauri’s extradition by making both US and UK representatives aware of Lauri’s persecution and our opposition to it. Write a letter to your political representative today, or donate to Lauri’s defence fund to help him secure a fair trial where he belongs – at home.