This couldn't happen in America... could it?
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 96 15:07:52 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: This couldn't happen in America... could it?
[When they came for the Jews, I didn't say anything; *I* wasn't a jew...
Forwarded-by: firstname.lastname@example.org (NormanS)
From: email@example.com (Emmanuel Goldstein)
** UPDATED INFO ON SENTENCING FOLLOWS **
Ed Cummings, known to many in the hacker world as Bernie S., has been living
through a real-life version of a Kafka tale since March 1995. It was then
that he was arrested for selling crystals which had the potential to be used
for fraudulent purposes. The United States Secret Service then stepped in
and had Cummings locked away in federal prison because he had in his
possession a modified tone dialer which could have been used to make free
phone calls. He was never accused of actually having done this but, under
a quietly passed law in October 1994, mere possession of hardware or
software which *could* be used in a fraudulent manner carried the same legal
penalties as committing the fraud itself.
Cummings was held for seven months without bail and without trial. When the
time finally came for him to make a plea, he chose to plead guilty for two
reasons: 1) He could face many years in prison if he pleaded innocent and
was found guilty; 2) As the law reads, he was guilty of possessing hardware
or software which could be used fraudulently. The fact that a large number
of law-abiding citizens, if not the majority, are also technically guilty
of this crime, was irrelevant. After accepting his plea, the judge sentenced
him to the exact amount of time he had already served and Cummings was
finally released in October 1995. But this was not the end of his troubles.
A couple of years ago, Cummings had an almost comical run-in with a local
police department. He and two friends were being questioned by a police
officer and an item the officer took particular interest in was a tone
dialer in Cummings' possession. When the officer left the room for a few
minutes, the batteries to the tone dialer were removed. Since they were
not under arrest and since they had not been instructed to not touch
anything, this clearly did not seem to be that serious an action. But the
local cops went ballistic and charged Cummings with "tampering with
evidence". Cummings insisted that he wasn't even the person who took the
batteries out but preferred to pay a fine and plead "no contest" rather than
turn a friend in. The story should have ended there. But when the events of
March 1995 transpired, Cummings was found to be in violation of the two
years' probation handed down by the local authorities. And so a hearing was
scheduled shortly after his release.
After five postponements (two requested by Cummings' attorney, two
procedural delays, and one court-ordered delay, the hearing was held on
Friday, January 12, 1996. In addition to the judge, Northampton County
probation officer Scott Hoke, Secret Service agent Tom Varney, and Haverford
Township detective John Morris were in attendance. (The Haverford Township
police were the ones who originally suspected Cummings of taking part in a
drug deal when he was spotted selling crystals to black people in a 7-11
parking lot. Detective Morris would later threaten a college student with
libel for criticizing the actions of the police over the Internet.) Varney
and Morris arrived in the same car.
Ed's attorney was unable to attend because his car had been plowed under in
Philadelphia. He said he doubted the hearing would take place because of
the weather but told Ed to drive up just in case. Ed drove several hours
through blizzard conditions and arrived at the courthouse for the fourth
time. Scott Hoke, however, did not take this effort into consideration and
told the judge he would not tolerate any more postponements, despite the
fact that most of the postponements had been requested by the court itself
and that Ed had been wanting to get this over with from the start.
Hoke complained that Cummings had been "walking around on the street" for
three months. He did not mention that Cummings has been fully employed
during that time and has not violated any laws since his release. The judge
chastised Cummings for his lawyer's failure to appear and refused to allow
him to say anything throughout the hearing.
Tom Varney of the Secret Service then told the judge that he believed
Cummings to be a major threat to society and that he was concerned because
of the upcoming presidential campaign. It was unclear if he was actually
implying that Cummings would somehow be a threat to the president but the
judge and the police listened intently. This was the first time a Secret
Service agent had come to their town. Varney continued to describe the
threatening items that had been found in Cummings' residence: a copy of The
Anarchist's Cookbook, publications from Loompanix, a mag stripe read head
(no electronics) which "could have been used" to commit fraud, and material
thought to be C4 but later proven not to be. However, Varney said, the fact
that it could have been showed how serious this was. Nobody questioned his
Prior to this hearing, the Secret Service made an extra effort to contact
the county probation officer to insist that Cummings be imprisoned because
he was such a threat. They made quite an impression upon him apparently.
It also became known through various contacts that the Secret Service was
particularly angry at Cummings because he had given pictures of Secret
Service agents to local media (FOX 29) in Philadelphia. These pictures made
the Secret Service agents look foolish. Later, Secret Service agents would
say to a friend of Cummings: "Don't fuck with us. We're the biggest gang in
The judge determined that a probation violation had indeed taken place and
that Cummings should be held and a sentencing date scheduled within 60 days.
The judge had just done the same thing for a man who had just committed his
third DWI offense. In fact, he had killed someone. The judge ordered that
person held on $50,000 bail. Ed Cummings, however, was another matter. The
judge ordered Cummings held on $250,000.
So Cummings is currently being held on a quarter of a million dollars
because he's thought to have taken batteries out of a tone dialer years ago.
He's in a 5 by 8 holding cell 22 hours a day with no windows and no clock.
He never knows what time it is nor whether it's day or night. The
temperature reaches a maximum of sixty degrees and he has only one layer of
thin cotton clothing and one blanket. To add to his misery, he was just
notified that the Haverford Township police will destroy the property they
seized from him last year unless he picks it up by Friday, January 19.
The hearing to determine how long Cummings will be imprisoned for will be
scheduled within 60 days. He could get a maximum of two years.
Cummings has been transferred into the "Phase One Inmate Unit" which is
where inmates are held for the first 30 days. There are three phases in
total, the third occurs after 60 days. Right now he's actually in the cell
known as "the hole" which is supposed to be used for solitary punishment.
Because of overcrowding, he's been put in there with two other inmates, one
of whom is a convicted child molestor serving time for DWI. Cummings
described the conditions as "really bad" - the prison is cold and filthy.
The prison itself was built right after the Civil War. There are tons of
roaches and grafitti in all the cells which dates back to the fifties - the
last time it was painted. There are 1200 inmates.
We will continue to forward any email he receives at the firstname.lastname@example.org
address. You can write to him directly or send reading material to:
Northampton County Prison
666 Walnut Street
Easton, PA 18042
We just found out that Bernie S. will be sentenced this Friday morning at
9 am in Easton, PA for the crime of removing batteries from a tone dialer
several years ago. This is defined as a victimless misdemeanor for which
the judge in this small town (under considerable influence from the Secret
Service) set bail at $250,000. He could get two years in prison at
sentencing. Press attention could be very helpful in avoiding a sentence as
irrational as the bail setting - right now the only influence these people
are getting is from the Secret Service and they want to put Bernie S away
for as long as they can. If you're not entirely up to date on this story,
finger email@example.com for all of the details.
If you know of anyone who will cover this story, please get ahold of them
right away so they can plan on being there. If anyone is interested in
going, let us know so we can hopefully fill some cars from NYC.
Sentencing is scheduled for Friday, January 26 at 9 am
Northampton County Government Center
7th and Washington Street
Easton, PA 18042-7492
(610) 559-3020 (district attorney)
case # 2173-1993
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Edward E. Cummings
Misdemeanor 2 - tampering with physical evidence
Please help spread the word.
© 1996 Peter Langston