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The conviction of Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the Silk Road marketplace on the Dark Web, has given the Second Circuit a chance to explore how to apply the Fourth Amendment to the search and seizure of stored digital information.

The government seized and searched Mr. Ulbricht’s laptop. Ulbricht, backed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argued on appeal that the search violated what is known as the “particularity” requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Under the Fourth Amendment, all warrants must be supported by probable cause and “particularly describ[e] the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The Framers adopted the requirement that a warrant describe in a particular manner both the place to be searched and what the government intends to seize as evidence of a crime to prevent “general warrants.” A general warrant is a warrant that grants government agents discretion to search any and all property owned by a criminal suspect in an unrestrained and exploratory manner. By contrast, the Fourth Amendment demands that agents tell the court, before searching a suspect’s property, where they plan to search, what they plan to seize, and how the place to be searched and the things to be seized relate to the charged conduct.

Systems with digital information present special challenges for agents attempting to describe the target of their search and for courts attempting to fashion warrants that don’t authorize agents to rummage through wholly irrelevant digital files. The appeals court in U.S. v. Ulbricht recognized that hard drives typically contain a wide range of highly sensitive information, such as “tax records, diaries, personal photographs, electronic books, electronic media, and medical data, records of internet searches, [and] banking and shopping information.” Second, as a practical matter, it is difficult—if not impossible in most cases—for the government to separate sensitive, private, or irrelevant information from information that is targeted before they conduct an examination of a digital device. Often, agents must seize a suspect’s entire computer system, or gain access to a suspect’s entire email account, before they can determine if it contains evidence relevant to their investigation.

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In a decision that could have a wide-ranging effect on people convicted of child pornography offenses, the Second Circuit last month struck down a 225-month sentence imposed on a man convicted of having illegal material on his laptops and a thumb drive as he tried to drive into Canada. Joseph Jacobs was 39 years old and headed to his parents’ vacation home in Quebec when Canadian officials stopped him. He failed to show up for court in Canada, so charges were brought in the U.S. for “transporting” his personal collection of child pornography, which carries a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. Other than that, his conduct was not remarkable: there was no evidence he produced child pornography, shared illegal photos, used a file sharing system, or tried to solicit a child. What he did do, though, was annoy the sentencing judge. He testified at his own trial and lied, then was rude and obnoxious at the sentencing hearing, showing no empathy for the victims or regard for the legal system.

Still, the appeals court said that a sentence near the statutory maximum was far too high in these circumstances: “A sentence of 225 months for a first-time offender who never spoke to, much less approached or touched, a child or transmitted explicit images to anybody is unreasonable.” The opinion provided several reasons for the panel’s decision which could be used in other cases. It noted Jacobs was already 39 at the time of the crime and that recidivism is lower in offenders that old, as compared to younger offenders. It provided statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showing that 225 months was longer than almost all child pornography possession sentences. It reiterated the holdings and reasoning of U.S. v. Dorvee, which had found that the main sentencing guideline for child pornography was “irrational” and “eccentric” because its many enhancements (“specific offense characteristics” in Guidelines terms) were present in virtually every case. It noted that since Dorvee, that concern had only become stronger because the Sentencing Commission had since “effectively disavowed” the flawed guideline and “the latest statistics on the application of sentencing enhancements confirm that the enhancements Jenkins received under this Guideline are all-but-inherent.”

These are powerful words coming from the appeals court that oversees all sentencing in the Southern and Eastern District of New York. Throwing out a sentence based on “substantive reasonableness” is rare — it happened last year in another child pornography case, but that was a summary order with little precedential weight. People facing sentencing on child pornography charges would be well advised to carefully consider the arguments presented by the panel in U.S. v. Jacobs and apply them to their own cases.

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United States Attorney General Jefferson Sessions put out a tragic new policy today that, if it is followed, will ruin countless lives through the unyielding weight of the federal law. Under the policy, which is outlined in this memorandum “for all federal prosecutors,” the government will “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” This means U.S. attorneys no longer exercise discretion, but instead will pursue people with the highest penalties, i.e. the longest Guidelines sentences and the harshest mandatory minimums, that they can. The new policy is a sea change, especially in drug cases, where prosecutors were previously directed to seek mandatory minimum sentences only against the most serious offenders (in case there was any confusion, Attorney General Sessions specifically rescinded that policy, known as the Holder Memorandum).

In child pornography cases, the new policy means that virtually all offenders may be charged with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for “receipt” of illegal child pornography. While fraud cases generally do not carry mandatory minimums, it may mean that more defendants are charged with aggravated identity theft, which carries a two-year mandatory minimum sentence consecutive to any other sentence imposed. If individual prosecutors do not charge these “most serious, readily provable” offenses, they will have to get approval from the U.S. attorney for the district or an assistant attorney general, or their designee. Reasons not to charge must be “documented in the file.”

Defenders of over-criminalization in the federal system point to prosecutorial discretion as a counterweight to the thousands of acts that Congress has defined as federal offenses. Prosecutors, they argue, need to be able to bring serious charges in order to obtain cooperation from defendants and to force fair guilty pleas. But the Sessions memorandum, if read literally, would seem to turn that approach upside down: it directs prosecutors to charge as harshly as possible, no matter how extreme or unusual the law is. Of course, the U.S. Department of Justice has a long tradition of decentralization, leaving many crucial decisions and policies to local U.S. attorneys. Again, that ought to be a bulwark against overreaching under the federal criminal code. But the Trump administration seems intent on breaking down many of the customs that have kept the federal system, on balance, relatively fair. If the Sessions memo is followed, it spells tragedy for families gathered up in its broad, thoughtless net.

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Welcome to the revamped zmolaw.com website. This site combines content that was formerly on two separate webpages, integrating Sex Crimes Advocacy with the old zmolaw.com site. The new site has up-to-date information on our practice, press reports about our cases, and detailed information about criminal justice issues with a sharp focus on federal criminal defense and sex crimes. It also has comprehensive information about sex offender registration from a defendant’s perspective and sections on victims’ rights and civil rights. If you need a criminal lawyer, or you are interested in our work, please explore the new pages and check here frequently for updates.

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Our client Felipe Rodriguez is about to go home after almost 27 years in prison.

Felipe needs clothes, food, a job, and a place to live. We are working (with the Innocence Project) on all that, but you can help. The Innocence Project has set up a GoFundMe page to collect cash donations, which will be forwarded to Felipe upon his release to help him to get started with his new life. He also needs men’s clothes — shoe size is 9.5, pants are 36W and 31.5L. To donate, go to https://www.gofundme.com/felipereentryfund.

As you may already know, Felipe was granted clemency at the very end of last year based on a petition submitted by the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma and the Innocence Project. Felipe was an amazing inmate: he published a newsletter, renovated a rectory, re-built an institution’s  plumbing system, handled dangerous chemicals, and befriended some of the most hated criminals in the prison system. We also believe that he is innocent of the crime he was convicted of, the stabbing murder of a young mother in Queens in 1987. There was no connection between Felipe and the victim; the main witness against him had made an identical accusation against another individual and — unbeknownst to the jury — was caught on tape saying he had made it all up.

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Adam Elewa, Esq.We are delighted to announce that attorney Adam Elewa has joined the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma as an associate. Mr. Elewa is a graduate of Fordham Law School. His career has focused on defending against accusations of technology- and computer-related crimes including charges of computer hacking, child pornography and wire fraud. He has represented clients in the First, Second, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits.

“Technology affects virtually every case we defend,” said principal attorney Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma. “Adam’s experience expands our capacity to fight the most difficult, sophisticated cases involving computers, cell phones, social media and internet communications.”

Over the past two years, Mr. Elewa represented journalist Matthew Keys in connection with his alleged role in defacing the Los Angeles Times website, individuals accused of being associated with Anonymous (the “hacktivist” collective), and an information technology professional accused of damaging his employer’s computer network.

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In the best spirit of the holiday season, Governor Cuomo announced today that he granted executive clemency to Felipe Rodriguez based on a petition filed by the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma and the Innocence Project. Felipe is a remarkable client. The end to his incarceration brings joy not only to his lawyers — Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project and Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma — but also to the many people he has touched in and out of prison. What makes the commutation even more remarkable is that he was convicted of an incredibly heinous crime: the stabbing murder of a young mother, whose body was found dumped in a parking lot in Queens in 1987. But the trial evidence was weak. The Innocence Project has been fighting to prove Felipe’s innocence for years. Last year, IP brought in the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma to continue and expand the investigation. In short, the only real accuser at trial claimed that Felipe borrowed his car to commit the murder, but had previously accused someone else of the exact same crime, then turned on Felipe instead after pressure from the police. In the meantime, the accuser was caught on tape saying his car could not have been used in the crime in any event. The jury never heard (or learned about) the tape.

Felipe’s prison record is extraordinary. As described by Governor Cuomo’s office: “While incarcerated, Rodriguez has excelled as a devoted leader of the Catholic faith, leading worship and bible study groups as well as contributing to facility Catholic newsletters.” Felipe arranged for a visit to the prison from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York. He counseled the notorious upstate New York serial killer, Artie Shawcross, to repent before his death in 2008. As the governor noted, while in prison Felipe studied “masonry, television and radio repair, and barbering, as well as HIV/AIDS counseling, receiving marks of high praise from his instructors in all courses.” The petition filed for Felipe also highlighted his skills as a carpenter and handyman: it was noted that he was trusted with caustic chemicals, renovated the rectory in one prison, and revamped the plumbing system in another. His prison record is devoid of violence. Efforts to fully exonerate Felipe Rodriguez will continue as he and his family savor his freedom.

For a profile of Felipe Rodriguez and his son on Channel 7 Eyewitness News, click here.

 

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For about two weeks last year, the FBI took over a website called the Play Pen that hosted and made available huge amounts of child pornography. It delivered illegal porn to as many as 100,000 computers around the world, along with malware – the so-called “NIT,” or Network Investigative Technique – that secretly infected the machines. The malware was used to send back identifying information to the FBI. About 190 people were searched, arrested and prosecuted based on this technique. And it was all supposedly authorized by a warrant issued by a federal magistrate judge in Virginia.

But, as it turns out, the warrant was no good. Or at least some courts have so held. Yesterday, the latest opinion from the Southern District of Iowa, agreed with decisions in Oklahoma and Massachusetts finding that the Virginia magistrate did not have the power to authorize searches of computers outside Virginia. The FBI had no right to rely on a bad warrant: “a warrant issued without proper jurisdiction is void ab initio and any search conducted pursuant to such warrant is the equivalent of a warrantless search.” The evidence against the defendant was suppressed and, if the decision is upheld, the case will likely be dismissed. Although other decisions have found that the Virginia NIT warrant was valid, a proposal is pending to change Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure to extend the power of federal magistrate judges to issue out-of-state warrants. While that may empower every magistrate judge in the country to allow your computer to be infected with malware, the 190 or so defendants arrested under current law will still have to slug it out in court to avoid harsh child pornography penalties.

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A judge in Syracuse earlier this summer ruled that a defendant charged with a federal sex crime should be acquitted because even though the defendant went to meet the phony “minor” (an undercover state trooper) at a mall, there was not enough evidence to show that he intended to try to have illegal sexual contact with the minor.

Michael Mahannah was charged with the sex offense after an investigator posed as a twelve-year-old boy and began sending him enticing text messages. The investigator pretended to be an underage boy named “Brett,” and started talking about sex. He continued the conversation for six hours even after Mahannah indicated that he wasn’t interested. The defendant agreed to meet only after “Brett” asked about oral sex a half-dozen times.

Mahannah told police that he was not planning to have sex with the boy, but would have told him in person that he should not solicit sex and that doing so is dangerous — not a defense that usually has much traction. Police unsurprisingly did not buy it: they arrested Mahannah and charged him with attempted coercion and enticement of a minor, a federal sex crime that carries a ten year mandatory minimum sentence.

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Does the jury’s opinion matter at sentencing? Almost never. But last week, a Sixth Circuit panel said that a trial judge did not go too far by polling the jury about their opinion on sentencing in a child pornography case and considering their answer under 18 USC 3553(a). The below-Guidelines sentence was affirmed in U.S. v. Collins.

After an Ohio jury found defendant Ryan Collins guilty of receiving and distributing child pornography, Judge James S. Gwin asked the jurors what the defendant’s sentence should be. The average recommended sentence among jurors was 14.5 months, with individual responses ranging from 0-60 months.

Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the defendant’s recommended sentence was 262-327 months, more than eighteen times the average sentence recommended by the jurors.