Home > Attorney/Lawyer, Criminal Law > Criminal Law in the Wireless Age: WiFi and Theft

Criminal Law in the Wireless Age: WiFi and Theft

Last Saturday morning, I went to go get coffee and noticed that my local coffee house and noticed on the door that they provide free Wifi. After I purchased the delicious coffee treats for my wife and I, I went out to my car and pulled out my laptop to see if it worked. I selected the free wireless network that was provided and began searching whether anyone had ever been charged with “stealing” Wifi in Michigan or anywhere else. Don’t ask me why I searched for that – just chalk it up to how a criminal defense attorney’s mind works.

What I found was surprising; yes, someone had been charged with with accessing someone else’s network without authorization, commonly referred to as “piggybacking.” In Michigan, this is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.00. I was completely shocked when I read this. Is a felony really necessary to punish this conduct? The officer that arrested the Michigan admitted that he didn’t arrest the man after he questioned him because he didn’t know whether or not a crime had been committed and stated that he didn’t believe that the defendant knew he was committing a crime when he accessed the network. The store owner didn’t know that it was a crime. The Kent County Prosecuting Attorney that prosecuted the seemed hesitant to issue the authorize the warrant.

In my opinion, it’s time for a reality check. It is a legal cliche that “ignorance of the law is no defense.” However, as legislatures enact more and more laws, it is ridiculous to assume and expect the public to read all of the laws that are enacted and amended each year. New York has a similar statute, however requires that in order to sustain a conviction for “piggybacking,” the prosecutor is required to prove that the owner of the network put the public on notice that unauthorized use of the network was prohibited.

However, until Michigan’s Legislature amends this statute, individuals can be charged with a felony for unauthorized use of WiFi.


If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges or is the subject of an investigation regarding larceny, shoplifting, burglary or any other crime, contact Michigan Criminal Lawyer Nicholas A. Leydorf for a free and confidential consultation at (517) 388-6800. We represent clients throughout Michigan, including Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Lansing.


  1. May 19, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    Kind of scary really, doesn’t pretty much everyone grab wifi when they need to check email?

  2. July 5, 2011 at 3:21 am

    Well, soon I guess I need a Law and Prohibition Guide in a pocket book version..

  3. March 22, 2012 at 6:35 am

    I just found this while Googling about that very story. Laws like this show a gross misunderstanding of the nature of broadcasting WiFi.
    Most laptops and mobile devices will automatically search for, and connect to, an open WiFI connection when turned on. When the device tries to connect it asks for permission from the network and connects when it receives it. If the network is secured then the device doesn’t receive consent to connect. This is where the consent is assumed to be negotiated (and should be) in most of the world, if I’m not mistaken. If you hack into a secured network, then you are stealing. Like I said, many devices will connect automatically, so we’d all be guilty of felonies, otherwise.

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