Kinslow v. State

Decision Date21 June 2021
Docket NumberS20G1001
Citation311 Ga. 768,860 S.E.2d 444
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court
Parties KINSLOW v. The STATE.

311 Ga. 768
860 S.E.2d 444

KINSLOW
v.
The STATE.

S20G1001

Supreme Court of Georgia.

Decided: June 21, 2021


Sydney Rene Strickland, Leigh Ann Webster, Strickland Webster, LLC, 803 Glenwood Ave SE, Suite 510-203, Atlanta, Georgia 30316, for Appellant.

Daniel William Alan Peach, A.D.A., Patsy A. Austin-Gatson, District Attorney, Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office, 75 Langley Drive, Lawrenceville, Georgia 30046, for Appellee.

Peterson, Justice.

860 S.E.2d 446

Jereno Sadatrice Kinslow appeals his felony conviction for computer trespass in violation of OCGA § 16-9-93 (b) (2). The conviction is premised on evidence that Kinslow altered his employer's computer network settings so that e-mail messages meant for Kinslow's boss would also be copied and forwarded to Kinslow's personal e-mail account. The Court of Appeals affirmed Kinslow's conviction, and we granted Kinslow's petition for certiorari, posing the question of whether Kinslow's conduct constituted a violation of OCGA § 16-9-93 (b) (2). Although the statute in general is extremely broad, the portion of (b) (2) on which the State exclusively relies does not reach Kinslow's conduct. Accordingly, we conclude that the evidence presented at Kinslow's trial was insufficient to support his conviction under Jackson v. Virginia , 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), and we reverse.

Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence presented at trial shows that, in 2013, Kinslow was an information technology ("IT") employee of the City of Norcross ("the City"). In October 2013, Greg Cothran was hired to manage the IT department, with an objective to increase the reliability and efficiency of the City's computer system. Shortly after Cothran started his new position, he began having difficulties with Kinslow. In November 2013, Cothran criticized Kinslow's work performance, which led to an argument and a loud outburst from Kinslow. Due to Kinslow's behavior, Cothran became concerned that Kinslow might damage the City's computer network. As a result, Cothran attempted to place certain safety measures on the system, and Kinslow's employment was eventually terminated in June 2014.

In August 2014, Monique Lang, the City Clerk, sent an e-mail from her work account to Cothran at his work account. Lang addressed this message solely to Cothran. In response, Lang received a "bounce-back" e-mail notification stating, in relevant part, that Lang's e-mail was undeliverable to a recipient with an "@me.com" e-mail address. Lang alerted Cothran about this occurrence, and subsequent investigation revealed that the @me.com e-mail address was a personal account that had been established by Kinslow. The City also discovered that the City's computer network settings had been altered by checking a box in the City's computer program to cause Cothran's incoming e-mail messages to be copied and forwarded to Kinslow's personal @me.com account. The forwarding of Cothran's e-mail messages began in approximately December 2013, while Kinslow was still employed by the City. At that time, only Cothran and Kinslow had the necessary "administrator-level access" to alter the settings in order to forward Cothran's incoming e-mails. This forwarding continued until it was discovered in August 2014, two months after Kinslow's termination. Evidence indicates that Kinslow routinely accessed the @me.com account from his cell phone prior to discovery by the City.

At the end of a jury trial, Kinslow was found guilty of one count of violating OCGA § 16-9-93 (b) (2) and sentenced to ten years of probation. The Court of Appeals affirmed. See Kinslow v. State , 353 Ga. App. 839, 839 S.E.2d 660 (2020). The only question before this Court is whether the evidence presented at trial supported Kinslow's conviction for computer trespass under OCGA § 16-9-93 (b) (2).1

When we consider whether the evidence [was] legally sufficient to sustain a conviction under Jackson , we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, draw every reasonable inference from the evidence that is favorable to the verdict, ignore any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence, assume that the jury reasonably
860 S.E.2d 447
believed every word of testimony favorable to the verdict and reasonably disbelieved every word unfavorable to it, and only then inquire whether any reasonable person could conclude that the State has proved the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.

Debelbot v. State , 308 Ga. 165, 168 n.6, 839 S.E.2d 513 (2020) (citing Jackson , 443 U.S. at 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781 ).

OCGA § 16-9-93 (b) (2) defines the offense of computer trespass, in relevant part, as "us[ing] a computer or computer network with knowledge that such use is without authority and with the intention of ... [o]bstructing, interrupting, or in any way interfering with the use of a computer program or data." Kinslow was charged with committing computer trespass by "us[ing] a computer network with knowledge that such use was without authority and with the intention of obstructing and interfering with data from a computer, by copying Greg Cothran's e-mails and causing them to be forwarded to his own private e-mail account." The State thus was required to prove that Kinslow used a computer network knowingly without authority with the intention of obstructing or interfering with the use of data.2 We conclude that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to prove that Kinslow's use was done with the intention of obstructing or interfering with the use of data.3

"The fundamental rules of statutory construction require us to construe [a] statute according to its own terms, to give words their plain and ordinary meaning, and to avoid a construction that makes some language mere surplusage." La Fontaine v. Signature Research, Inc. , 305 Ga. 107, 108, 823 S.E.2d 791 (2019) (citation and punctuation omitted). "In construing language in any one part of a statute, a court should consider the statute as a whole." Id.

The Court of Appeals concluded simply that Kinslow's "act of altering network settings to copy and redirect his supervisor's incoming e-mail ... amounts to conduct sufficient to constitute the offense of computer trespass, i.e., ‘[o]bstructing, interrupting, or in any way interfering with the use of a

860 S.E.2d 448

computer program or data.’ " Kinslow , 353 Ga. App. at 842 (1), 839 S.E.2d 660. The State in particular argues here that the evidence authorized the jury to conclude that Kinslow "acted with the intention of obstructing or interfering with data."4 We disagree.

We can reject fairly quickly the State's argument that the evidence supported a finding that Kinslow acted with the intention of "obstructing" data. Using a dictionary contemporaneous with the 1991 enactment of the statute, "obstruct" may be defined as "to block or stop up ... with obstacles or impediments"; "to hinder" or "impede"; or "to cut off from being seen." See Webster's New World Dictionary of American Language 983 (2d College ed. 1980). Contrary to the State's suggestion, the State presented no evidence that Kinslow's e-mail forwarding scheme "blocked" or even "hindered" the flow of data in the form of e-mails to Cothran, who continued to receive those e-mails intended for him. Rather, the evidence showed only that Kinslow's actions created an additional flow of data to another account. And although the State suggests that "interrupt" is another meaning of the term "obstruct," that does not help the State at all. "Interrupt" carries a similar definition of stopping or hindering, although "interrupt" often denotes a more temporary stoppage than "obstruct," such as "to make a break in the continuity of." See id. at 737. Again, the State presented no evidence that Kinslow's actions hindered the flow of e-mails to Cothran, either permanently or temporarily.

As discussed in more detail below, the term "interfere" carries a range of meanings, from merely meddling where one's help or interest is unwelcome, to stopping something from happening. Thus, the question of whether Kinslow acted with the intention of "in any way interfering" with the use of data is a closer question. But canons of statutory construction indicate that the term "interfering" as used in OCGA § 16-9-93 (b) (2) carries a narrower definition akin to "hindering" — in this context, hindering the use of data. We conclude that Kinslow's actions did not violate that narrower definition.

Dictionary definitions of "interfere" contemporaneous with the enactment of the statute include meanings such as "intrude in the affairs of others," "meddle," and "intervene." See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 940 (3d ed. 1992); Black's Law Dictionary 814 (6th ed. 1990). The State also cites language from an academic work included in a legal dictionary, to suggest that "interference" happens whenever one " ‘bring[s] about a particular result which is different from that which would have been produced if the mechanism had been allowed unaided to follow its inherent principles.’ " See Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) (quoting 2 Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty 128-129 (1976)). That is a particularly broad definition.

But other dictionaries from the relevant time period also include much...

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    ...often informed by familiar canons of construction, including noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis. See, e.g. , Kinslow v. State , 311 Ga. 768, 773-74, 860 S.E.2d 444 (2021) (noting that "several canons of construction address[ ]the importance of examining the context in which a word appear......
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    ...under OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (A), statutory language expressly prohibiting probation would be mere surplusage. See Kinslow v. State , 311 Ga. 768, 774, 860 S.E.2d 444 (2021) (explaining that when construing statutes, we normally avoid interpretations that render some statutory language "mer......
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    ... ... imprisonment," standing alone, were sufficient to ... deprive trial courts of their discretion to impose probated ... sentences under OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (A), statutory ... language expressly prohibiting probation would be mere ... surplusage. See Kinslow v. State, 311 Ga. 768, 774 ... (860 S.E.2d 444) (2021) (explaining that when construing ... statutes, we normally avoid interpretations that render some ... statutory language "mere surplusage" (citation and ... punctuation omitted)) ... The ... Court ... ...
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