In 2009, he downloaded and publicly released approximately 20% of the PACER database of United States federal court documents managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. He had accessed the system as part of a free trial of PACER at 17 libraries around the country, which was suspended "pending an evaluation" as a result of Swartz's actions. Those actions brought him under investigation by the FBI, but the case was closed two months later with no charges being filed.
On July 19, 2011, Swartz was charged by U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer, in relation to downloading roughly 4 million academic journal articles from JSTOR. According to the indictment against him, Swartz surreptitiously attached a laptop to MIT's computer network, which allowed him to "rapidly download an extraordinary volume of articles from JSTOR." Prosecutors in the case claim Swartz acted with the intention of making the papers available on P2P file-sharing sites.
Swartz surrendered to authorities, pleading not guilty on all accounts, and was released on US$100,000 unsecured bail. Prosecution of the case continued, with charges of wire fraud and computer fraud, carrying a potential prison term of up to 35 years and a fine of up to $1 million After Swartz's arrest, JSTOR put out a statement saying it would not pursue civil litigation against him though MIT remained silent on the proceedings
Swartz in 2012 protesting against SOPA
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stephen P. Heymann and Scott L. Garland pursued the criminal case against Swartz under U.S. attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, who justified the charges by stating "stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars." The case tested the reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1984 to enhance the government’s ability to prosecute hackers who accessed computers to steal information or to disrupt or destroy computer functionality.
The government, however, has interpreted the anti-hacking provisions to include activities such as violating a Web site's terms of service or a company's computer usage policy, a position a federal appeals court in April said means "millions of unsuspecting individuals would find that they are engaging in criminal conduct." The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, in limiting reach of the CFAA, said that violations of employee contract agreements and Web sites' terms of service were better left to civil lawsuits.
The rulings by the 9th Circuit cover the West, and not Massachusetts, meaning they are not binding in Swartz's prosecution. The Obama administration declined to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.