back to article Drive-by Wi-Fi 'thief' heavily fined

A Michigan man who parked outside a local Wi-Fi cafe every day to check his email has been fined $400 and sentenced to 40 hours' community service. Sam Peterson can consider himself unfortunate since if he'd simply popped into the Re-Union Street Cafe in Sparta, Michigan, for a coffee while checking his email he'd have avoided …


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  1. Dave

    Give me a break

    If the propritorer (sp?) of an establishment is offering free wi-fi, then they should limit the range of their wi-fi signal by placement of the AP.

    Some important questions:

    1. Did she have a web page agreement statement regarding the use of the Re-Union's WiFi network?

    2. If no web page agreement statement, then were there signs or some other means of notification regarding the use of the WiFi network?

    This is a dangerous precident. Now everyone will require that you purchase product(s) in order to avoid legal ensarements linked to using the "Free" WiFi.


  2. Dave

    Give me a break

    If the propritorer of an establishment is offering free wi-fi, then that shouldn't be the concern of the local law enforcement. Sounds like Johnny Law is getting kick backs from someone.

    This is a dangerous precident. This is only the beginning of something bad. Humph!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fraud? Who'd he defraud?

    So what crime did he commit exactly? Who'd he defraud? The cafe owner seems unperturbed by all this. Perhaps the police might like to prosecute her for inviting "criminals" to connect to her unsecured wifi.

  4. Tom

    Next...Prosecute breathing air...

    Given that the WiFi operator didn't have a problem, it seems logical now that you can prosecute a person for breathing air if they don't come into your establishment. What is the world coming to these days.

    Bizarre! to say the least!

  5. Richard Neill

    Wifi polociy

    Why can't we have a modification to the Wifi broadcast info which, along with the SSID, explains the access policy?

    At the moment, there is no way to distinguish

    "Open network, because the admin is utterly incompetent"


    "Open network, by explicit invitation, as a public service"

    Failing an explicit "keep out" sign, the latter ought to be the presumed interpretation.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It was not unauthorized access, the Cafe shop owner said so

    "He found a relatively new and rarely used law. "Unauthorized use of computer access," he said."

    He was authorized, the Cafe shop owner didn't object. His computer accessed their network, their network said OK too. That authorization.

    No different than if I use a GSM phone on GSM roaming, you don't get written permission from each and every network owner. If they objected they wouldn't let our GSM connect!

    So he should appeal, or the EFF should help him appeal. Otherwise the same thing can be applied anywhere you access a computer without EXPLICIT pre-permission.

    BTW, Are you OK if I post a comment here? I forgot to ask first.

  7. Morely Dotes

    Another possible defense

    I don't know the legal term, but there is a principle in law that a (possible) victim is required to take any "reasonable" measures available to him to mitigate damages. For example, posting a "reserved parking" sign in a lot which appears to be a public parking lot, or enabling WEP or other methods of limiting access to one's WiFi network.

    This appears to be a clear case of a local thug^W cop trying to make some headlines at the expense of an inoffensive citizen who perhaps can't afford to fight back.

  8. Dan Dietzer

    Not Thinking Of Consequences

    This is a great example of a law that is ramrodded through a legislature without thought for the consequences. My daughter's PC has trouble accessing our own home WiFi network on occasion because of all the noise from the neighbors' unsecured routers! As a Michigan resident, I guess I'd better ensure that she knows enough to hook up to the CORRECT router.

    Probably Sparta was not pulling in enough funds from traffic citations so they went after another "source of funds".

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another Example of American Freedom

    And it's only getting worse, as long as republicans stay in charge

  10. Andy Barber

    Free WiFi

    I have WiFi at home that is secure. I let my next door neighbour use it thought, as they are happy to pay me £5.00 p/m, rather than paying more for their own ISP connection. I have asked other neighbours to join in but they are quite happy to pay over my charge to AOL & Ticalli!

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Slow day in law enforcement?

    Weren't there any old ladies jaywalking or anyone going 1MPH over the speed limit? Did the donut shop raise their prices? Perhaps the judge's laxative wasn't working that day?

  12. Steve Byrne

    What next....

    If the guy had stood outside the cafe when the lights were on inside, would the cops have arrested him for unlawful use of light??

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    WiFi phones

    So the new breed of mobile phones, auto-connecting to whatever access point is available, will need to have warning stickers attached: "Don't use near cafés, or else...". Then I can enjoy a quiet coffee ;-)

  14. Daniel Silver badge

    What a load of ....

    Pure, unmitigated bollocks. I think this quite succinctly illustrates the phrase "the Law is an Ass".

    I'm not a lawyer but I'm sure there's more holes in this prosecution than a ton of swiss cheese. Are there any lawyers out there who'd take up this guy's case pro bono and give the donut munchers a swift and well deserved kick up the arse?

    - Daniel

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  16. Malcolm Weir Silver badge

    Here's the situation...

    The cop overstepped the line. That's a given. But the accused was offered, and agreed to, the $400/40 hour thing, so as to avoid a criminal record had he gone to court and been convicted.

    Now, we may agree that the chance of a conviction were slight, IF the cafe owner was willing to testify that she was OK with what he was doing. But a closer reading suggests that maybe she wasn't completely OK, but thought she had no options. So there would be a chance that the perp would have been convicted, and faced jail time. Given that, it's no wonder that he opted for the diversion and the fixed penalty.

    Even more entertainingly, eventually someone is going to get hit with a similar charge, at a time when they were not actively being a customer, but had recently been one. For example, if you buy your morning coffee at the cafe, but check your e-mail at lunchtime. Are you still "unauthorized", because you are a customer of the business?

  17. Giles Jones Gold badge


    This is like prosecuting someone for watching a TV through a shop window.

    Basically if you aren't meant to see or receive something then prevent it being accessible.

  18. evil tom

    A letter to the village idiots...AHEM, elders.

    Here is an email I wrote to the village idiots...ahem, TOWN OFFICIALS of the village of Sparta, Michigan.

    Feel free to Web mob them into sensibility.



    Dear Village of Sparta,

    Your totalitarian and absolutely disgraceful prosecution of Sam Peterson (Michigan man busted for stealing Wi-Fi signal; could have received five years - is despicable, inane, backward and farcical. I should drive out to Sparta, Michigan just to get arrested for accessing unencrypted Wi-Fi in order to challenge your ridiculous "law;" Mr. Peterson must simply not have had the resources to do so.


    752.795 Prohibited conduct.

    Sec. 5.

    A person shall not intentionally and without authorization or by exceeding valid authorization do any of the following:

    (a) Access or cause access to be made to a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network to acquire, alter, damage, delete, or destroy property or otherwise use the service of a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network.

    (b) Insert or attach or knowingly create the opportunity for an unknowing and unwanted insertion or attachment of a set of instructions or a computer program into a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network, that is intended to acquire, alter, damage, delete, disrupt, or destroy property or otherwise use the services of a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network. This subdivision does not prohibit conduct protected under section 5 of article I of the state constitution of 1963 or under the first amendment of the constitution of the United States. not only completely over-broad in its definition (or lack of definition) as to what constitutes "unauthorized" access to a computer network, it is also completely out of step with actual technology; there is no such thing as "unauthorized" access to an open, unencrypted Wi-Fi network!!!

    This is not the same thing as breaking into someone's home or hacking someone's computer or even an encrypted Wi-Fi network, where there is an expectation of privacy. It is broadcast on an open channel, much like public radio or even official, unencrypted radio transmissions - someone receiving radio transmissions is not illegal, and unless people like you get their way, never will be. Using an unencrypted Wi-Fi signal is completely unintrusive.

    Prosecuting someone for such an act violates their rights, both under the Michigan Constitution of 1963 and the United States Constitution, to not be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures and to due process - they are being prosecuted for unintrusively receiving and sending digital information using technology in the exact manner in which such technology was designed, with no harm to either party and with no zero-sum gain involved (no one loses anything). To equate this with theft effectively makes the entire Internet illegal.

    This same law technically makes it illegal to access your village's own public website, as either no "authorization" to "acquire" packets from most servers is formally granted to, or is acquirable by, end users, or such authorization is considered automatic and built into the technology itself.

    It also makes it illegal in your village to use opensource software since such software is based on an agreement to require open access to the source code with no authorization. It makes it illegal to access the websites of any service provider, without specific permission to do so.

    You are all breaking this law every time you access Pop-up email ads are also illegal and technically, you are breaking the law right now by receiving/reading my email, since no explicit end-user authorization was granted through my email host to your email host and then to you, in order to send or receive information to/from me.

    Police chief Andrew Milanowski should be fired, the law should be repealed and Sam Peterson should be free to go with all charges dropped. The village owes him a public apology.

    This story is all over the Internet now, and Sparta, Michigan is rapidly becoming known as the new heartland of ignorance because of the actions of one overzealous police officer and a poorly researched law written out of hype and stupidity.

    Congratulations! Sparta, Michigan is now known throughout the world, and will be for some time!

    Please forward this to every village official...oh wait, that would violate village ordinance 752.795. Never mind. I will do it myself, since I am outside the jurisdiction.

    Sincerely (glad I do not live in Sparta, Michigan),

    [your name here]

  19. This post has been deleted by a moderator

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Some fool wrote: "And it's only getting worse, as long as republicans stay in charge"

    Wait a sec, Al "I'm the most boring man in the world" Gore invented the f-ing internet and now it's the republican's fault? (sorry, had to interject a little american humor) Not only are you completely wrong in your assertion but you're an individual who is perfectly content to blame all of the worlds woes on anybody who doesn't march to the same beat of your leftist drum.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pure dumbness

    Ok, so the Wi-Fi network is unsecured and public. This person accesses a public network. The cafe operator okays the access. So, why is he being arrested?

    I hope that guy countersues and wins. The police officer has no rights in arresting someone for using public WiFi.

    Or if there's a god, I hope that officer gets struck by lightning.

  22. Rick

    Re: Here's the situation

    But the accused was offered, and agreed to, the $400/40 hour thing, so as to avoid a criminal record had he gone to court and been convicted.

    He is now convicted of a misdemeanor crime it did not specify what level though. Here in Texas we have levels from C to A. C being the lowest ex: moving violation to the highest A ex: Assault, Grand Theft. C class misdemeanor do not go on your record as they are just a ticket but B and A do go on your crimial record. SO that being said using free Wi-Fi I guess is now a criminal offense in the US.

    Second Point in Westchester County in New York it is now against the law to have unsecured Wi-Fi.

  23. Jim

    Hang on a minute...

    bws, you appear to have commited the same crime as the anonymous poster you castigated.

    I still laugh when I hear a Democrat described as leftist though, compare to the world at large, the US doesn't even have centre politics let alone a left wing.

  24. Jim


    For relevence, I agree with the idea that if you set up a wireless network and do not enforce active security then there is no recourse to the law when someone utilises said network.

    It is the same as any server on the Internet, if you do not require a user to authenticate then authorisation to use the service is implied to all.

  25. myxiplx

    How exactly is this illegal?

    He's parked in a public spot, browsing a public frequency. His computer receives a broadcast from the coffee shop offering internet access, which he chooses to accept. And somehow this is illegal?

    That's like prosecuting people for listening to the radio.

    If you don't want people to use the service, don't broadcast it.

    How exactly was this poor chap supposed to know that this wasn't a free service being offered?

    His lawyers really should have argued that this was authorised access since his computer was only responding to an offer of service from the coffee shop.

  26. Register Reader

    This is Madness!!


    Sorry, had to do that.. good idea evil Tom, but when you start mentioning open source software I think you're getting outside the realms of what any of those officials will know about (well, most of them), better to keep it about networks, and restrict the length so that they'll actually read it all! It was entirely unreasonable what happened, *especially* because the owner of the network didn't sound bothered at all..

  27. Simon Day

    Permission, invitations and specifications

    Ok this was in the uk, so it may presume a little more sense on the part of the law, but I do recall hearing of a court case that was dropped (if anyone can find it I'd love the exact details to be able to cite it properly) based on the defence argument.

    The prosecution case was simple: The accused had used a wireless network without the owners permission, thereby breaking the computer misuse act.

    The defence asked if a formal invitation from the network owner would constitute permission, the prosecution agreed this would be a valid form of permission.

    The defence then produced the 802.11 specification, specifically the part about broadcasting the SSID. In this specification the packets that provide the name and SSID for the base station is called an invitation.

    Since the person using the network had seen received this packet, they had therefore received and openly broadcast invitation to this network. Because there was no encryption on the network it was deemed fair to assume this invitation was valid.

    The charges were dismissed by the judge

  28. peter

    Money maker

    This sounds like a good way to make money with an unsecured access point, log the mac address and computer name and look out for those who haven't paid or bought something.

    "Hi do you want to go to jail for 5 years? we can settle right now for cash"

  29. SImon Hobson Silver badge

    Minor details not mentioned ...

    Did the shop have ANY notice to say that the free wi-fi was for the use of patrons only ? Was there ANY indication given to users of the wi-fi that there were conditions attached ?

    We don't know because the report doesn't say. But assuming both answers are NO, then I'd go with the argument that the coffe shop proprietor appears to have provided the service as a public service and therefore there is implied permission to use it - thus no offense.

    But once again, it does sound like the guy was blackmailed into pleading guilty - something our own government here in the UK are getting good at, and something that's being challenged in the European courts as illegal. Here there are now many offences where there's a choice of "admit guilt and pay a modest penalty" or "argue the matter in court where we've heavily stacked things against you and when found guilty will be much more heavily punished, and should you manage to get off, we'll still stick you with the inconvenience and cost which is more than the fixed penalty anyway". This approach has been challenged, I believe, as a breach of a persons right not to be coerced by the state into admitting guilt.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "if you do not require a user to authenticate

    then authorisation to use the service is implied to all"

    Absolute bollocks. So if you leave the keys in your car, you are inviting anybody who feels like it to drive off with it, are you?

    Of course not. Leaving a network unsecured may be foolish, but it is not an implicit invitation to use it.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just a side note

    "This story is all over the Internet now, and Sparta, Michigan is rapidly becoming known as the new heartland of ignorance "

    I am a michigan resident and live about 20 miles south of Sparta. I just want to say here... Apparently the rest of the world is just now finding out what we in West Michigan have known for YEARS!

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    charged for breathing?

    Has this guy been charged for inhaling the aroma of the coffee floating outside the shop? Surely this is also the property of the company? Couldnt they have got an extra $3 outa him for the Large Expresso odour?

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Knock off the bad analogies

    You can't liken using an open WiFi network to taking a car or entering someone's property. One is theft, another is trespassing. Connecting to an open network neither deprives the owner of property nor involves physically entering their property without permission. The legal aspects are debateable, but don't make comparisons with completely different criminal acts that cannot realistically be applied to this situation.

  34. Ian Michael Gumby

    You're missing the point...

    The moron broke the law.

    As written the law was inteneded to go after those who go hunting for open networks and then sniff packets.


    The sign said free Wi-Fi for customer use only. (watch CNN)

    He didn't enter the shop.

    So he broke the law.

    And I call him a moron because he was using an unencrypted Wi-Fi.

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re : Knock off the bad analogies


    They are not intended to be analogies of the type of crime.

    They are intended to be analogies of morality, i.e. the morality of doing something which you know to be wrong because it has been inadvertently made easy for you.

    Those who seek to defend people with such dubious morals are usually those who also share them.

  36. Steve Roper

    Re: Re: Knock off the bad analogies

    And I'm sure that "dubious morals" include any that aren't on the level of your own high horse, mate. The basic tenet of all human nature is "get as much as you can while giving as little as possible". It's called GREED. We ALL operate on this basic principle, you included, because we are all aware that everyone else does. Why else do workers go on strike for a pay rise? Why else do shops charge 24.99 instead of 25.00? Why else does most of the population of the Western world have pirated MP3s on their hard drives?

    If you have NEVER taped a show off TV, if you have NEVER recorded a song off the radio, if you have NEVER exceeded a speed limit, if you have NEVER taken advantage of an opportunity presented by someone else's negligence, if you have NEVER lied to anyone, if you have NEVER done anything wrong/immoral/illegal in your whole life, then maybe you have a right to be judging the rest of us from that great destrier of yours. But I don't think so. It's moralising do-gooders like you that are robbing the rest of us of our freedom, mate - not politicians, not cops, but moralists like yourself who think they know best how everyone else should live.

    And unlike you, I've got the guts to put my name to this, so if someone has anything to say to me about it, they know who they can say it to.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    New City Revenue Stream

    New City Revenue Stream. Cafe got nothing. Chief probably got a raise

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