Deng v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 552 F.3d 574 (7th Cir. January 5, 2009).

Employee Deng got a bad review from his employer Sears, Roebuck & Co. Disaffected, he took disability leave but continued to come into the office. On one of these visits, he deleted a bunch of data relating to work he had been doing. It cost Sears more than $40,000 to restore that data.

Sears called the police to report the data deletion, and Deng was arrested a year and a half later in Massachusetts (which is where he had fled). Deng was charged with violation of 720 ILCS 5/16D-3(a)(3), the Illinois law that prohibits tampering with computer files without the permission of the files’ owner. The criminal court dismissed the charges at the preliminary stage because a witness failed to appear.

Deng then filed a federal civil action against Sears for malicious prosecution. After his case was thrown out at the district court level, he sought review with the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal of Deng’s suit. Among the things Deng was required to prove was that his arrest was made without probable cause. The court found that probable cause existed.

Deng had argued that he was authorized to delete the data, since statistical modelers like him were expected from time to time to free up disk space and get rid of unneeded data. One problem with this argument, however, was that Deng was on disability leave. Nothing in the record showed that the remaining Sears employees thought the data was no longer needed. After all, they spent significant sums to restore it. Moreover, because Deng was on disability leave, he had no authority to do anything with the data, let alone get rid of it. Finally, Deng’s fleeing after the troubles began was an indicator to authorities that he had done something wrong. Probable cause requires an objective analysis. Flight added to the impression that a crime had been committed.

Tennessee lawyer Jack Burgin also discusses this case at his blog Our Own Point of View.