June 13, 2024

A Virus Made Me Do It

According to press reports, an Alabama accountant has been acquitted on charges of tax evasion, after he argued that a computer virus had caused him to underreport his income three years in a row. He could not say which virus it was. Nor could he explain why it had affected only his own return, but not any of his clients’ returns which he had prepared on the same computer.

If the reports are accurate, the man’s claims sound bogus. I suppose the jury felt they had a reasonable doubt about whether his story was true.

It’s hard to see how juries can reach just outcomes in cases like this. Virus infestations are common, and it’s often hard to tell after the fact what happened. We’ll probably see more computer-virus defenses in cases like this, and some of them will lead to unjust verdicts.

This is yet another price we have to pay for the persistent insecurity of our computer systems.

[Thanks to Brian Kernighan for pointing out this story.]


  1. Mark Perdomo says

    Cases like this set up a fun little precedent. Technically incompetent juries and lazy prosecutors can give you a huge break on anything related to computers. As long as you plead ignorance, the juries think to themselves “I hope this never happens to me.” Remember, the juries are people who don’t know what an IP is, and think that if you paid $30 for Ad-Free KaZaa, you are allowed to download as much as you want.

  2. The Brian Kernighan?

    [Yes, the man himself. He teaches here at Princeton. — Ed Felten]

  3. Reasonable doubt.
    The only way you could have established he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt was by having computer experts on the stand testifiying convincing reasons of why this guy excuse could not be true.
    Apparently, prosecutors didn’t found any that could help them.
    Anyway- I am sure he must have paid taxes, penalties, and interests… just didn’t faced a criminal sentence (jail time).