Is It Ever a Crime to Search for Information Online?

Charged with a Crime Stay Off Social Media

Most people use the internet every day. Whether you go online for work, school, or just to connect with friends and loved ones, there’s a good chance you conduct several searches each day. In fact, Google processes more than 40,000 search queries every second of every day.

The internet has also changed just about every aspect of how we function in life. Instead of looking at a map, for example, it’s easy to simply go online and get directions and drive times for your next road trip. Want to find out when a movie is showing in your local theater? The information is literally at your fingertips. In fact, most people use the internet now without even thinking about it. With the internet, you can order anything from products, services, even groceries and have it delivered right to your door.

Just as the internet has changed the way people live and work, it has also given rise to new types of crime. This prompts some people to ask whether it’s ever a crime to simply run an internet search. Can the police arrest you for looking up information online?

Under certain circumstances, it is definitely possible for an internet search to constitute a criminal charge.

Internet Crimes in Federal Court

While internet crimes cases can end up in state court, it’s more common for these types of cases to be tried in federal court. One reason why internet crimes typically end up in the federal system is that federal law enforcement agencies generally have more resources to investigate these types of crimes.

Another reason why internet crime cases are generally prosecuted in the federal system is that courts have ruled that someone using the internet to engage in criminal activity in other states qualifies as interstate commerce, which gives the federal government jurisdiction in the case.

Every case is different, and different facts can give rise to unique situations. While it’s impossible to list every scenario in which an internet search could land someone in legal trouble, there are a few specific situations that are either always crimes or most likely criminal acts.

  • Viewing child pornography – If you search for pornographic images of children online, you could be charged with a federal crime. You don’t even have to download the images to be charged, as it’s possible that your computer stores images you view in its “cache” without you realizing it. Prosecutors can make a case that this cache of materials means you possess these images.

It’s important to note that just about everyone has run an internet search that has turned up images they didn’t intend to see and don’t want to see. Accidental searches like this are not considered crimes. However, intentionally searching for sexual content involving underage individuals is illegal and could result in criminal charges.

  • Downloading copyrighted material – Downloading copyright-protected movies and music is a crime that can result in steep fines and a permanent criminal record. While simply searching for illegal torrents is not necessarily a crime, it could trigger law enforcement scrutiny if you regularly browse and frequent illegal streaming and torrent sites. It’s also worth noting that torrent sites are not inherently illegal. However, it is a crime if torrent sites are posting material that is protected by copyright.
  • Questionable internet searches – If you have to research murder, kidnapping, or another serious crime for a school paper or work project, you might have wondered if the nature of your searches somehow tips off police that you’re interested in illegal activities. Or maybe you just enjoy reading true crime books or detective novels and often search for new material to enjoy. Should you be worried that your browser history makes you look like a criminal?

Searches for basic information — especially searches motivated by legitimate research — are perfectly legal. However, there have been cases in which a person’s searches raised serious alarms about their mental state and capacity to commit a crime. Perhaps most infamously, a former New York City Police Department officer was arrested and prosecuted in 2013 after his wife discovered numerous internet searches and chat room discussions about kidnapping, torturing, and cannibalizing women.

The case drew intense scrutiny, as prosecutors could find no evidence that the ex-officer had actually acted upon any of his fantasies. However, the nature, volume, and detail of his imagined crimes were so horrific it prompted prosecutors to charge him with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. According to the ex-cop, his fantasies were motivated by a sexual fetish that he never intended to act on. The officer was acquitted in 2015 but spent two years in prison while awaiting trial.

Although the vast majority of internet searches are not illegal and won’t result in any criminal charges, it’s important to use the internet responsibly. If you have been charged with an internet crime, it’s in your best interest to speak to an experienced Texas federal criminal defense lawyer.

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Broden & Mickelsen, LLP
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Prior results cannot and do not guarantee or predict a similar outcome with respect to any future case.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.