Lauri Love was told by a court today that the UK’s intelligence agency, the National Crime Agency (NCA), had no duty to return computer equipment seized from his parents’ home five years ago.
During a heated exchange at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Love narrowly avoided having to pay £8,000 costs after bringing an action against the NCA under the Police Property Act 1897.
District judge Margot Coleman told Love that his computer equipment contained material that did not belong to him and was needed by the NCA while it considered whether to bring criminal charges against Love over allegations of hacking.
In a 10-page judgment, Coleman said she was satisified on the balance of probabilities required in a civil case that data on Love’s computer drives “appeared to have been hacked”.
According to the judgment, a hard drive on one of Love’s laptops contained encrypted data in a file with the name “trucrypt1” which held confidential data.
This included hacked data from the US Department of Energy and the Senate, copies of UK and foreign passports, the names and home addresses of 258 court staff and judges in California, folders containing the credit card details of more than 232,000 individuals, and details of harassment and discrimination claims made within the US military.
“I was provided with a great deal of information, took time to go through all documents and consider your arguments and the arguments of the National Crime Agency,” the judge told Love. “I have made a finding that the information on that hardware is not yours and you are not entitled to have it returned to you.”
Love had previously faced a extradition order from the US, and a possible prison sentence of up to 99 years, for allegedly hacking into US government computer systems as part of an online protest against US prosecutors’ treatment of internet pioneer Aaron Schwartz.
The judge dismissed Love’s arguments that the NCA should return three computers and two storage devices that were sized from his family home in Stradishall, Suffolk, after failing to press charges for nearly a year.
Coleman said that a year was reasonable, given the scale of the enquiry – other similar cases had taken three or four years.
“The evidence in your case is huge,” she said. “The data is huge. What was harvested represents millions and millions of pages of data.” But the judge said that just “scratched the surface”, as more evidence is likely to be supplied by prosecutors in the US.
NCA presses for costs
In heated exchanges over whether to award costs against Love, the judge said Love had refused to co-operate with the court and it was “irritating” that the public should have to pay the court costs.
Andrew Bird, representing the NCA, asked the court to order Love, who is unemployed and receives benefits of £120 a week, to pay the costs of the hearing.
Because Love had chosen to bring the legal action by filing a complaint against the NCA, rather than filing an application, the NCA was entitled to ask for costs, the court heard.
“Mr Love made a complaint, whether he intended to or not,” said Bird.
Bird said the court should award costs because, firstly, Love had made previous applications for the return of his computer equipment, but had then withdrawn them.
“Secondly, when the chief magistrate was considering listing this case, Mr Love was told he was unlikely to get his equipment back, but he continued with the claim,” he said.
The judge asked Love whether he agreed that he had been warned his case was unlikely to be successful.
Love told the court that people should not be dissuaded from seeking justice, even if the chance of the restoration of their rights was not 100% favourable or 50% favourable – it was important that the arguments should be heard.
“Mr Love, your arguments did not even get off the starting block because you did not have an argument,” the judge said.
In a series of tense exchanges, Coleman asked Love: “Why did you start one proceedings, then bring another set of proceedings? You started one set of proceedings, withdrew them, and restarted them.”
Love responded: “There was an unlawful direction made by Bury St Edmunds Magistrates’ Court.”
“Stop beating about the bush,” said the judge. “Why, three months later, did you decided to launch it again?”
“The extradition, ” said Love.
“What has extradition got to do with that?” said Coleman.
“Because there was a chance I could be taken away from the country,” said Love. “It is very hard to use civil courts when you are in a cell in New Jersey or New York.”
The judge retorted: “Mr Love, you are not the victim. You brought this on yourself – you are the author of your own misfortune.”
The judge told the court that as Love was a litigant in person, and could not be expected to know court procedure, she would not make an order for costs.
“I am not going to make an order which, technically, could be made against a litigant in person, who did not know at the time,” she said. “It is irritating, to say the least, that the taxpayer has had to bear the cost of the proceedings.”
Coleman strongly urged Love not to bring further proceedings against the NCA until it was clear whether the NCA was going to bring legal proceedings against him for alleged hacking offences.
“You did not co-operate,” she said. “You did not comply with an order made by the County Court. You did not comply with the directions of Bury St Edmunds Magistrates’ Court. You were also asked to make disclosures for a hearing I dealt with and you did not comply with that. There has been no co-operation.”
The judge said she had written a closed judgment containing detailed evidence, alongside a 10-page public verdict, which will be released only if the NCA and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decide not to prosecute Love.
‘I want to be prosecuted’
Speaking after the case, Love said he wanted to be tried in the UK courts. “My ultimate aim is to be prosecuted,” he said. “That’s a weird thing to say because I don’t think I committed a crime, but until I am prosecuted, successfully or unsuccessfully, I can’t leave the country.”
Love said he had lived through five and a half “very harrowing years” with the extradition proceedings hanging over him.
“I am hoping that within the next year at the latest, this comes to a conclusion,” he said.
“Had I been promptly charged and prosecuted in 2013, all of this nonsense would be a distant memory and, like some of my friends, I would be laughing about it and getting on with my life.
“If the NCA brings a case to the CPS, then a charge is levied, then we get an even playing field because then I’d be allowed access to the evidence they used in these proceedings. Then things may start to get a little better.”
Love said that although the judge had advised him not to press the matter at the Court of Appeal, he would have to “meditate” on the matter.
The Appeal Court quashed an attempt by the US to extradite Love to face criminal hacking charges in three US states in February 2018 on the grounds that it would be oppressive to Love’s physical and mental health, given his diagnosis of Asperger’s and depression. The court ruled that he was at high risk of suicide if extradition went ahead.
Speaking outside the court today, Love said: “If I hadn’t appealed the extradition, I’d be dead. But now, if I don’t appeal this case, I can just see that the law has taken a very regressive stance on cryptography and people no longer have property rights if they do not cooperate in decryption.
“This is a terrible state of affairs, personally for me, but it’s better than being kidnapped and locked up and killed. So I don’t know what will happen next. We’ll see.”
MP urges quick decision
Barry Sheerman MP, who has supported Love’s campaign against extradition in Parliament, urged the CPS to make a quick decision on whether to charge Love – who has been diagnosed with autism and depression – rather than leaving him in legal limbo. .
“Lauri’s case helps all of us in understanding the needs of people on the autism spectrum and, hopefully, will lead to much-needed appropriate reform of the criminal justice system,” said Sheerman.