Crime of Planning
Atrocities of World War II gave the world the legislation on human rights. Punishment for modern crimes will emerge over time
 
In 2012, one morning’s papers reported a legislator watching porn in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly. While most made the act sound dirty, we choose to take a different tack. The man should be charged with ‘dereliction of duty’. If he is not heavily penalised for the graver sin, that of using public time and money for entertainment, all legislators will watch movies, or listen to music, during assembly or parliament sessions. 
 
Lawmen and electronic equipment make bizarre stories but this one should serve as a warning to the public; especially youngsters. A New York cop, Gilberto Valle, had access to the data on NY citizens. It listed details of many women. The data was ‘restricted access only’ and Valle was one of the privileged few. He also had a darker side. How dark, and how dangerous, was the bone of contention. The cop was part of an Internet group which exchanged notes. The themes, or one of the more rabid ones, involved the modus operandi of sickening acts on women. The cop had access to a list-full of names, addresses and other details. One thing led to another. Plans were hatched.
 
The group stepped on the gas with every passing day, or rather every chat. They planned whom, how and when to kidnap. Next step: molestation and murder. Not content, the bodies were to be dissected, cooked and, finally, eaten. Valle was arrested. Before the plans could be put into action. Would you see all that as a crime, with such gruesome facts? You be the judge.
 
Valle was convicted. He lost his job. His wife left him. His daughter was given to custody. And New York had its own ‘Hannibal-the-Cannibal’. The convict appealed. His contention was that the whole exercise was just a fun thing. No harm meant. It was a site where fantasises roamed free. It was not for the conservative majority to judge him as evil. After all, no one was harmed. It was just honest-to-goodness fun.
 
What of the computers that were used to enhance the possibility of success? The victims were totally unaware of the dastardly scheme. His co-chatters had classified information which could be used to deadly and ‘hunger-satisfying’ effect. Valle had exposed a lot of women to extreme harm, possibly a violent end. 
 
Conspiracy has many components. Some are actionable, some not. It involves more than one person, usually a group. It involves a plan, a method of execution, a desired completion. It must cause harm, being planned so, though not necessarily physical harm. The ultimate is sedition, overthrow of the government. Most countries have the maximum penalty for that; either execution or incarceration for life. It has been so for centuries. Until the Second World War. 
 
The carnage that Hitler carried out on his own dissenting officers, like Claus von Stauffenberg, has been well documented. Court martial meant death by firing squad, the end preferred by chivalrous military men, moments after the trial. Insult was often added; by hanging on meat-hooks, slowly sucking life out.
 
These atrocities gave the world the legislation on human rights. And the ‘Cannibal Cop’ relied on them. He argued that making fantasy plans, in no way, can be considered a crime. None of the so-called conspirators met each other. They lacked the physical tools. No joint was cased. No one was stalked. It was all wild imagination.
 
He asked, what about that most hallowed of Amendments to the US Constitution—the first of the ‘Five Freedoms’—freedom of speech? Can people not chat, even in a virtual world? Will Big Brother enter every room, grab every computer, watch every message, interpret every action? 
 
The appellate bench agreed with him. It was all virtual; no harm intended. But the question of computer access remained; it revolved around the definition of ‘authorised access’. The prosecution claimed that access meant certain restrictions. The defence countered that that ‘overuse’ was not specified. The court decided that the 21 months in prison was enough. The man walked free. Will the terrorists, instructed over the Internet, also be given this ruling? Only time, and clever lawyers, will tell.
 
(Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected])
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