Defining ''Computerized Communication Systems'' Under Wisconsin Law

By Reddin & Singer

Flip Phone

In a time of rapidly changing technology, it can often be difficult for state legislatures and courts to keep up with the various means that sexual predators use to communicate with and lure their victims. Without broad and flexible definitions, state criminal statutes and court decisions can quickly become dated and inapplicable to the current and preferred communication methods. A recent case before the Supreme Court of Wisconsin looks at how concepts such as “computerized communication systems” can be applied flexibly to allow for the continued prosecution of sexual predators.

In State of Wisconsin v. McKellips, Mr. McKellip was a high school basketball coach hired to coach the girls varsity basketball team at Athens High School. C.H. was one of the players selected for the varsity team. Mr. McKellips began his relationship with C.H. by praising her basketball skills to her mother and calling her on the phone to discuss practices, team strategy, and other basketball issues. While most of these calls were relatively normal, Mr. McKellip ended one call by stating “I love you.” Soon, Mr. McKellip began to call C.H. on her cell phone on a more regular basis. When her parents learned of this, they admonished C.H., telling her to tell Mr. McKellip to call on the home phone. When C.H. told Mr. McKellip this, he bought her a flip cell phone to use so that he could call and text her. C.H. and Mr. McKellip continued a texting and calling relationship, which eventually progressed into a sexual relationship. This continued until C.H.’s parents discovered the secret cell phone, and she admitted what had been happening.

C.H. and her parents brought the story to the police, and an arrest was eventually made. It was discovered that for one and a half years, C.H. and Mr. McKellip had exchanged over 8,000 texts. Eventually, the State of Wisconsin charged Mr. McKellip with sexual assault of a child and use of a computer to facilitate a sex crime, among other charges. The trial court instructed the jury on the crime of using a computer to facilitate a sex crime, noting several times that the crime required that the defendant use a “computerized communication system” to communicate with the victim. He was ultimately convicted of this crime.

On appeal, Mr. McKellip argued that the use of a flip cell phone did not constitute a “computerized communication system” as required under the Wisconsin statute. While he acknowledged that certain smartphones operate in a manner virtually identical to a computer, he argued that his flip cell phone, and the one he gave C.H., were not computers because they did not use internet.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court turned to the plain meaning of the phrase “computerized communication system” and determined that it meant “a group of interacting interrelating, or independent elements forming a complex whole used to exchange thoughts or messages through a computer.” Based on this definition, the Court held that the exchange of text messages through a flip phone met the requirements for a computerized communication system, mainly because even flip phones require the input of data into a system that then computes the data and converts it into messages that are sent to others. It further noted that the statute nowhere required that the internet be used in order for a crime to be committed. Accordingly, it upheld the conviction on this basis.

If you have been charged with a sex crime involving the transfer of information or communications through a computer or phone, it is important to speak with an attorney to determine whether your conduct actually aligns with the crime that has been charged. To speak with a veteran Milwaukee sex crimes attorney today, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at (414) 271-6400.