Thief forced to pay nearly $10K for stolen laptop data

During April 2008, Michael J. Birkeland decided it would be a brilliant idea to steal a laptop computer from a Utah Valley University classroom. The laptop belonged to Perry Stewart, an art professor at UVU. Stewart primarily used the laptop for lectures, thus his coursework and presentations were stored on the computer. Two days later, the computer was recovered from Birkeland, but all of Stewart’s files had been erased. Birkeland admitted to the crime and pleaded no contest to theft, a class A misdemeanor.

Stewart attempted to recover the deleted data and was able to regain access to over 27,000 files by using a recovery service. The recovered files were usable, but required approximately 350 hours to organize and rename the files. In addition, Stewart was forced to recreate over 100 PowerPoint presentations for lectures that were unable to be recovered. The state estimated that each presentation required six hours to create and totaled out Stewart’s entire recovery time at 950 hours.

Based on Stewart’s recovery time, the state argued that Birkeland should provide financial restitution in the amount of $47,500 ($50 an hour for time spent recovering files). Birkeland opposed the ruling on the grounds that the misdemeanor charge had a limit of $1000 in damages and Stewart would be getting paid anyway due to the salary structure of the position. After listening to both arguments, the district court ruled against Birkeland’s misdemeanor claim, but adjusted financial restitution to the amount of time spent beyond the salaried position at the university. Birkeland was ordered to pay for 25 percent of the 950 hours at a rate of $41 an hour, a total of $9,758.

Birkeland appealed the ruling, but judges Carolyn McHugh and Stephen Roth found Birkeland’s admission of guilt more than enough justification to uphold the financial award. They also believed that deletion of the files was intended to allow Birkeland to sell the laptop quickly on a third party service like Craigslist or eBay.