How is Child Pornography Investigated?
Federal law enforcement agencies are very aggressive hunting down child pornography on the Internet and trying to link it back to people possessing it. Virtually everything you do on the Internet is recorded somewhere; any interaction you have with another person or website can be turned over to law enforcement, or worse yet, might be with an undercover officer. If you get a call from U.S. Customs (Department of Homeland Security), a U.S. Postal Inspector, or the F.B.I. about your "internet use" it is imperative that you hire a lawyer before you respond. Typically, the feds try to get a confession and a search warrant before they bring a case to court. Sometimes, prosecution can be avoided if no statement and there is no probable cause for a search warrant.
Most federal cases follow a fairly predictable pattern. The feds get tipped off about child pornography from foreign law enforcement, an internet service provider or website, or a family member or other eyewitness (the days of drugstores developing film are mostly behind us). They then can easily obtain user information from the internet service provider that provides service to the IP address involved in the suspicious activity. That information will include a physical address and a user's name. If there is enough evidence to obtain a search warrant, Homeland Security or the FBI will obtain a warrant from a judge and execute it. That usually means that about a dozen armed agents will appear at 6 a.m. at the address indicated. A female agent will be usually be present and will separate any children in the home from their parents. The lead investigator will attempt to interview the suspect. Most people talk in this situation: the agents hint that if you admit to something, you might not be arrested or the search might end sooner. Of course, the opposite is true: a statement in this situation often provides agents with the probable cause they need to arrest you.
Even if the agents cannot get a warrant to search your home, they may approach you for an interview. This often happens when too much time passes between the tip and the warrant application. Statements made in such an interview can provide probable cause for a search of your home or other location where child pornography might be found.
Once enough evidence is collected, the police, FBI or Homeland Security will make an arrest. In some cases, they will permit the suspect to surrender voluntarily. The arrest begins the court process and is followed by an arraignment before a judge, bail proceedings, discovery, plea negotiations, and, if necessary, trial, sentencing and appeals.