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7th Circuit overrules itself in satellite TV case

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled one of its own decisions from 20 years ago, finding that judges have discretion in whether penalties are imposed on those who steal encrypted television satellite signals or help others take them without paying for the service.

Deciding today in the case of DirecTV v. David Barczewski and Jonathan Wisler, Nos. 06-2219 and 06-2221, the three-judge appellate panel mostly affirmed a ruling from then-U.S. District Court Judge David F. Hamilton from the Southern District of Indiana.

The case goes back to jury verdicts against Jonathan Wisler and David Barczewski, who respectively had intercepted encrypted signals from the company’s satellite system without authorization and furnished devices to help others steal the signals. Both defendants bought electronic gear from a merchant that had advertised its products designed to help facilitate the theft of those signals and both participated in online discussion groups about decrypting those signals without paying.

But the case also involves penalties imposed by the District judge, and that’s a legal issue more significantly addressed in this case that the appellate court heard arguments on in February 2007. While affirming Judge Hamilton’s decision, the appellate judges found that one of its own decisions from 1990 that Judge Hamilton relied on wasn’t correct in finding that judges are mandated to give out maximum damages calculated under 18 U.S.C. §2520(c)(2), which says, “courts may assess as damages” involving the use of satellite signals taken without payment or permission.

In Rodgers v. Wood, 910 F.2d 444, 448 (7th Cir. 1990), the appellate court in Chicago held that the highest penalty calculated under that federal law section is mandatory – effectively leaving District judges without any discretion about whether or not damages should be assessed and that those should be imposed at the highest level.

The Rodgers ruling was the nation’s first appellate decision on that issue of statutory penalties being mandatory or permissive after Congress in 1986 overhauled that section of federal law. Specifically, Congress revised the language from “shall” to “may” in assessing those damages. Since then, other Circuits have analyzed that issue in the past 15 years and disagreed with Rodgers - the 4th, 6th, 8th, and 11th Circuits have held that §2250(c)(2) allows judges to not award damages.

Now, the 7th Circuit is following suit.

“Developments that leave this Circuit all by its lonesome may justify reexamination of our precedents, the better to reflect arguments that may not previously have been given full weight and to spare the Supreme Court the need to intervene,” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the panel that also included Judges Joel Flaum and Diane Sykes. “We overrule the portion of Rodgers holding that award of the maximum damages specified in §2250(c)(2) is mandatory. We conclude that the District Court has discretion not to award statutory damages under the statutory formula.”

Dismissing what the defendants argued, the panel wrote that the federal statute doesn’t require judges to set penalties according to wealth and the economics don’t matter.

“District judges have discretion to consider other reasoned approaches too; there is latitude in the word ‘may.’ The District judge used that latitude to give Barczewski the lowest available penalty,” Chief Judge Easterbrook wrote. “But judges need not go easy on hourly wage-earners who decide to steal TV signals, any more than they need to go easy on people who choose other forms of theft to supplement the family budget. People who do not want to pay the market price for goods or services must refrain from theft and cannot complain if the price of crime is steep.”

The case is remanded to the Southern District on the issue of statutory damages against Wisler.
 

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