Fisherman’s theft of trade secret conviction overturned for lack of venue but netted on extortion for Grouper sites.
Timothy Smith was a software engineer living in Mobile Alabama. An avid fisherman, he learned about a website called “Strikelines” that sells the coordinates of artificial reefs placed in various locations in the Gulf of Mexico by commercial fisherman. These reefs are attractive fishing locations but the coordinates are not shared to prevent overfishing. Strikeline obtains the coordinates by launching boats equipped with sonar equipment from its base in Pensacola, Florida that trowel through the Gulf of Mexico and discover reef locations. After processing the raw data collected by sonar, Strikeline offers for sale the private reef coordinates for $ 199.
Smith used a web application which he used to access Strikelines’ website and it allowed him to see the coordinates of the private artificial reefs. He reached out to the owners and told them he had the private reef coordinates but refused to tell them how he obtained it. Strikelines then had their website security upgraded but Smith was still able to break through. Again Smith refused to tell Strikelines how he accessed the data. Smith said he would delete the posts if Strikelines gave him the deep water fishing spots for Grouper. When Smith did not get what he wanted he threatened to post on Facebook the coordinates that Strikelines sells. The Strikelines owners then contacted law enforcement. A search warrant was executed at Smith’s home and evidence was found showing that he had accessed the Strikelines website over 4,500 times, and he sent the coordinates to his friends on Facebook Messenger.
Smith was indicted for knowingly and intentionally accessing a computer without authorization and for obtaining information with a value exceeding $5,000 from a protected computer. He was also charged and convicted of theft of trade secrets and transmitting a threat through interstate commerce with intent to extort a thing of value.
One issue raised on this appeal was whether Smith can be tried in a venue where he did not commit any of the conduct elements of the charged crime. The appeals court found venue was improper for the theft of trade secrets. Smith was prosecuted for theft of trade secrets in the Northern District of Florida but Smith had remained in Alabama during the commission of the crime where Smith was located when he took the trade secrets. Venue was not proper in the Northern District of Florida because Smith never committed any essential conduct in that location. There is no evidence that the trade secrets were taken from or transported through the Northern District Florida and the location where the trade secrets were created is not relevant to venue.
But venue was proper for the federal extortion count. Smith’s challenge that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the extortion conviction was rejected by the court. The jury had sufficient evidence based on the facebook posts and the text messages that Smith had exchanges with the owner where Smith said he would take down the harmful posts in exchange for spots for Grouper. When he did not receive the deep grouper numbers the next day Smith said the posts were going back up. The jury was entitled to construe this evidence as supporting a conviction because deep grouper numbers are things of value and going back up was transmitted in interstate commerce and can be construed as a threat to injure Strikelines.