A prolific e-mailer was ordered yesterday to pay more than $98,000 for flooding Washington computers several years ago with dubious offers to make money through the Internet.
A King County Superior Court judge last month found that Jason Heckel of Salem, Ore., violated the state's law against sending misleading and unsolicited commercial e-mail that could not be traced.
Yesterday, Judge Douglass North fined the 28-year-old Heckel the maximum penalty, $2,000, for one violation of the rule. The rest of the penalty is for state's attorneys' fees and court costs. The total is $98,197.74.
The case, originally filed in 1998 after the state's anti-spam law took effect, was the first of its kind in the country. Similarly, yesterday's fine, the first of its kind, may set a standard for other cases pending against senders of unsolicited commercial e-mail.
Heckel was found liable last month through a summary judgment, which meant that the state's evidence was so overwhelming that the case didn't have to go to trial.
But because state attorneys did not have the opportunity to present their entire case to a jury, the judge ruled that Heckel violated the law based on one e-mail. The $2,000 penalty was for that one e-mail.
Regardless, Heckel lawyer Dale Crandall said he plans to appeal. He argued that individual state laws against Internet spam violate the U.S. Constitution's protection of interstate commerce.
"It would create a patchwork of laws that would be impossible to keep up with," Crandall said.
Since Washington passed its anti-spam law four years ago, 26 states have followed suit.
Washington's law does not make all spam illegal. Only e-mails that use a deceptive subject line, misrepresent the e-mail's origin or use someone else's domain name without permission are prohibited.
Heckel's messages began with the subject lines, "Did I get the right e-mail address?" and "For your review-HANDS OFF!" And when consumers tried to reply to the e-mail, the message came back as undeliverable.
The Heckel case developed a national profile as states and federal government tried to regulate activities over the Internet without restricting constitutional rights, such as free speech.
In 2000, another King County Superior Court judge found the law unconstitutional, but the next year the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the law. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Heckel's case on appeal.
The protracted legal battle has increased costs on both sides of the issue. The state yesterday was awarded two-thirds of the fees it asked for.
It's unclear whether Heckel made enough from his Internet enterprise to pay the fees and fine. His business involved selling pamphlets on making money through the Internet.
His attorneys will not comment on whether he can pay the court judgment. But the Washington Attorney General's Office maintained in its lawsuit that Heckel sold an average of 30 to 50 pamphlets a month at $39.95. State lawyers say Heckel sent 100,000 to 1 million e-mails a week for about a year.
Attorneys argued that Heckel sent as many as 20,000 e-mails to Washington residents in 1998. The state asked for $20,000 in fines for multiple violations.
Still, the state is not expecting someone to cut a check soon, said Cheryl Reid, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office.
"The most significant victory is that the law has been upheld," Reid said. "The law allows people themselves to take spam cases to court."