In the recent case of The People v. Rolando S.,, the California Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District held that for purposes of California Penal Code Section 530.5, an individual who unlawfully accesses a victim’s account on a social media website and alters the victim’s profile and posts obscene messages and comments on other people’s profiles from the victim’s account may be charged with either a misdemeanor or felony count of identity theft depending on the nature of the facts. California Penal Code Section 530.5 states that “every person who willfully obtains personal identifying information of another person and uses that information for any unlawful purpose including: obtaining, or attempting to obtain, credit, goods, services, real property, or medical information without the consent of that person, is guilty of the public offense of identity theft.”
In Rolando S., the defendant-a high school teen-received a text message which he neither solicited nor expected to receive which contained the password to a fellow students’ email account. The defendant used the victim’s email password to log-in to her email account and then proceeded to change her Facebook password. The defendant then logged-in to the victim’s Facebook account and posted sexually-explicit messages and comments on the profile pages of two of her male high school friends. The Court of Appeals noted that although the defendant did not “willfully” obtain the victim’s email account password, he “willfully” used the password to obtain access to and subsequently change the victim’s Facebook password, whereby the defendant then proceeded to commit an unlawful act by posting sexually-explicit material on the profiles of other Facebook users. The Court argued that the newly-amended phrase “any unlawful purpose” in PC 530.5 demonstrated the California Legislature’s intent to greatly expand the range and scope of unlawful conduct underlying the criminal offense of identity theft.
Since the defendant’s conduct of posting the sexually-explicit messages constituted libel-which is defined as a false and unprivileged publication by writing…which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule or which causes the person to be shunned or avoided-the defendant committed an unlawful act under Penal Code Section 530.5 by illegally appropriating the victim’s identity and using it to commit libel which is a punishable criminal offense. Thus, the Fifth Appellate District upheld the defendant’s felony identity theft conviction on the grounds that Penal Code Section 530.5 intended to encompass unlawful actions such as the ones taken by the defendant in this case.