Articles Posted in Child Pornography

Twelve federal appeals courts have said that the FBI acted in good faith when they used a Virginia warrant to search thousands of computers around the world in the controversial Playpen child pornography case. Our office last week asked for a special hearing in the Second Circuit to challenge that conclusion, with a series of simple arguments that, somehow, the appeals courts keep missing – including a Second Circuit panel that ruled on the warrant last month.

Click here for a redacted version of our appellate brief and here for our Petition for Initial Hearing En Banc, an unusual request effectively required by the Second Circuit’s August ruling.

The logic is simple and the stakes are high.

In the latest perversion of the laws against child pornography, Maryland’s highest court late last month upheld the conviction of a teenage girl for sending around a one-minute video of herself performing fellatio.

The recipient of the fellatio was not prosecuted.

Neither were the girl’s erstwhile friends who, after a falling out, may have distributed the video (the court, in a lengthy decision, pointed out that the video was originally distributed in a super-private group chat with two friends, only one of whom later became hostile to the girl in the video).

Federal Child Pornography Lawyer Discusses YouTube Algorithm | Law Office of Zachary Margulis-OhnumaAn article in today’s New York Times suggests that there is an “open gate for pedophiles” on YouTube because of the way the video hosting service suggests videos to users.

If you look at one video of a partially clothed child on YouTube, the service’s algorithm will send you to more and more videos that are similar, the Times reports.

That has the effect of turning harmless videos of children into “sexualized imagery.”

A 200-month sentence imposed on a first-time child pornography offender was thrown out by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday because the judge erroneously assumed that the defendant must have committed a prior sex offense.

The reversal was the second time that the circuit court vacated the sentence imposed on Joseph Vincent Jenkins, who was convicted after trial of transporting child porn on thumb drives and laptops as he traveled to his parents’ vacation home in Canada. The first sentence, 225 months, was too long because there was no basis for Chief Judge Glenn T. Suddaby’s conclusion that Jenkins was at a high risk to re-offend. Jenkins had never been convicted before, was not accused of attempting to harm a child, and “never spoke to, much less approached or touched, a child.”

This time, Judge Suddaby erroneously imposed nearly seventeen years on a first-time, non-violent, child pornography offender by cherry-picking studies that, he said, showed that sex crimes against children are much more common than what is reported. He found that studies show “inconsistent findings concerning the prevalence rate of sex offending by non-production offenders.” Judge Suddaby went on to note features of Jenkins’s personality identified in a competency report, which, he said were correlated with sexually dangerous behavior. Based on this analysis, Judge Suddaby concluded that “it was likely that Jenkins had committed a prior–undetected–sex offense, that he therefore had a high risk of recidivism, that a lengthy sentence was justified.”

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Imagine you are met on the tarmac getting off a plane at JFK Terminal Two by armed customs officers. They tell you to come with them. They drive you to a secure area in Terminal Four, where foreigners are “processed” — i.e detained until they are admitted into the U.S. or sent to immigration custody. At Terminal Four, the officers do a normal customs search, then ask you to wait in a windowless room. Plainclothes investigators enter and tell you that they are going to search your cell phone and iPad. “No you are not,” you say. “I have a Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.” They respond that the “protection of the Fourth Amendment does not apply at the U.S. border.” They give you a “choice” — you can leave, but you have to leave your cell phone and iPad behind to be searched. Or you can give them your passcodes and, if they don’t find anything on your devices, you can be on your way. You give them the passcodes. They find pictures they believe are child pornography — they are not — and take you away in handcuffs.

Is this a “routine” border search, or something else? Have your Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights been violated?

Those are questions that principal attorney Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma will argue tomorrow before a panel of judges at the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Second Department. The ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation argued in an amicus brief that, under these circumstances, a warrant based on probable cause is required to search the devices. The state believes the search was proper because a federal agent had some vague notion that a house associated with a family member of the defendant was at some point in the past used to download child pornography. We’ll argue that more is needed to justify a search of electronic items at the border, just like a warrant was required to search a cell phone incident to arrest in the 2014 Supreme Court case Riley v. California. Moreover, under these circumstances the provision of the passcodes was not a voluntary act but was the product of coercion, and thus information derived from the passcodes cannot be used against the defendant under the Fifth Amendment.

1024px-EAS_Hall_SIT-300x200Starting this month, I have been teaching an innovative new class about computer crime and high-tech government surveillance at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. The course covers legal developments over the last two decades that have shaped how the government investigates computer crimes, such as computer hacking and the distribution of child pornography, as well as conventional crimes like drug trafficking and fraud that have become more efficient by using new information technologies. The course syllabus can be found here.

The topics we will cover come directly from our hands-on work for clients at the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma over the past couple of years. They include:

  • border agents’ authority to search computer devices at the United States border without a search warrant or suspicion,

On Monday, the New York Legislature passed a series of reforms that will significantly impact civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions for sexual abuse of children. Senate Bill S2440, or the Child Victims Act, extends the statutes of limitations to allow victims who are abused before age 18 more time to file lawsuits — and more time for the police and prosecutors to bring criminal charges. Governor Cuomo is expected to sign the measure.

The Child Victims Act affects the law in three major ways:

  1. It gives victims until they turn 55 to file lawsuits against their abusers or institutions that allowed their abuse, notwithstanding the other limitations periods in the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules which used to impose overlapping time-bars on civil child sex abuse cases.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission kicked off the new year with a comprehensive report analyzing data from federal sex crime cases. The report, which runs 81 pages plus a 62-page appendix of charts and graphs, contains some eye-opening conclusions. The most significant for child pornography cases is this: even though there is “little meaningful distinction between the conduct involved in receipt and possession offenses,” average sentences for receipt are much longer than sentences for possession. The Sentencing Commission has been calling on Congress to “align” the penalties for receipt and possession of child pornography since 2011. The effect on sentencing of the different child pornography offenses is shown in the following chart:

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The takeaway is something we clearly already knew: what you plead to matters. Average sentences for possession are lower than sentences for receipt — 26 months lower on average — even though the conduct is the same. Distribution convictions, which carry the same mandatory minimums as receipt, are much higher. Defendants and their attorneys must press prosecutors to permit them to plead to possession and not receipt or distribution. Even though receipt or distribution can be charged in the vast majority of cases, some prosecutors are open to pleas to possession, especially if the defense team can present mitigating circumstances.

The effect of statutory mandatory minimums is especially significant because the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which used to be binding on sentencing judges, are now merely advisory. As a result, judges increasingly impose below-Guidelines sentences in child pornography cases, which is illustrated in the following chart from the Commission’s report:

Under the Sex Offender Registration Act, registered sex offenders must tell New York State about all “internet accounts with internet access providers” and “internet identifiers that such offender uses.” Does that mean you have to disclose your social media accounts?

Most police and the the State Division of Criminal Justice Services would have said yes. Police agencies routinely scour the internet looking for sex offenders who are on social media but have not properly disclosed their presence. People always thought hiding a social media account was a felony — failure to register under Corrections Law Sec. 168-t.

Turns out it is not.

Under the regulations implementing New York’s Sex Offender registration act, a person who “has a history of drug or alcohol abuse” is considered at higher risk for re-offense, and can be assessed with points that lead to a higher risk level. In People v. Weber the defendant was found with bags of marijuana at the time of his arrest and on a prior occasion. The hearing court assessed him points in the drug abuse category, pushing him over the line into Level Two. Level Two requires publication of an offenders information on the internet and lifetime registration.

But in an opinion handed down yesterday, the First Department Appellate Division, disagreed. The People had to show that either that the defendant had a history of abuse or that the drugs were somehow connected to the crime at issue. The Appellate Division reversed the Level Two adjudication because “even assuming [the defendant] could be found to have been a marijuana user, such use was not established to be more than occasional social use, and thus would not warrant the assessment of points under the risk factor for drug abuse.” That put the defendant down to Level One, requiring twenty years of registration, but no internet notification.

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