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Articles Posted in Child Pornography

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner was just sentenced to 21 months in prison for sexting with a 15-year-old. At sentencing, his lawyer asked that he be sent to FCI Schuylkill in Pennsylvania. That seems to have been a mistake: Schuylkill is a medium-security prison, filled with violent offenders and replete with restrictive rules. Schuylkill has a satellite camp, but as a sex offender, Weiner is not eligible (he gets the “Sex Offender Public Safety Factor” and therefore must go to a secure facility). There are low-security federal prisons that would be far more pleasant and conducive to the year-and-a-half or so of introspective atonement that Weiner will endure while he waits to go to a halfway house. The New York Times wrote about Weiner’s placement in federal prison, but, unfortunately, just about everything in their story was wrong.

The bottom line is that “designation” to a particular federal prison is a complicated process with far-reaching consequences. Experiences in federal prison vary widely. Camps like the ones at Schuylkill and Otisville are unsecured and generally not unpleasant places to be. Contrast that with the “ADX” at Florence, Colorado, which is reserved for the most dangerous criminals in the United States and drives many of its residents mad. The Bureau of Prisons decides where you will go in the weeks after sentencing at a central facility in Grand Prairie, Texas. They rely on the Presentence Investigation Report (known as the PSR) for facts about you and plug those into a formula that determines your security level. It is essential that the information in the PSR is accurate as any mistake could change which facility you end up in. There is a small industry of experts who keep up with the daily changes in conditions within the Bureau of Prisons and can advocate for a particular designation. The process is laid out in this 108-page BOP policy.

The New York Times missed most of this in talking about Weiner, whose situation is not too different from many first-time federal offenders, including people convicted of child pornography. Being a former congressman and pledging himself to “a rigorous curriculum of rehabilitation and therapy” probably make no difference at all. Whatever his lawyer may have believed (and it does not seem like they thought about it beforehand), there is zero chance he would have been assigned to a prison in New York City: the three federal jails in New York are reserved for inmates who are awaiting sentencing or witnesses for the government, plus a small cadre of trusted inmates near the end of their terms who work in the local jails.

Two huge illicit markets operating on the Dark Web, AlphaBay and Hansa, were shut down today after being infiltrated by the government for the past several weeks. The sites had claimed up to 200,000 users, 40,000 vendors and 350,000 listings for illegal drugs, stolen credit card information, hacked computer code, counterfeit goods and other illegal items. A Canadian citizen based in Thailand was arrested last month in connection with AlphaBay.

The Dark Web consists of websites accessible only though the Tor network, an easy-to-use, technically sophisticated way to communicate anonymously over the internet. The technology, much to the dismay of governments around the world, has become popular with political dissidents as well as criminals hiding their activities from law enforcement. The Dark Web is home to numerous high-traffic online marketplaces with few limits on what can be bought or sold. These businesses conduct transactions in BitCoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies.

According to the Department of Justice press releasee, AlphaBay users bought and sold “deadly illegal drugs, stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms, and toxic chemicals throughout the world.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled against a defendant’s appeal of his child pornography sentence in the Eastern District of New York, upholding a ten-year mandatory minimum based on an obliquely-worded statutory enhancement found in 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2252(b)(2). The mandatory minimum applies only if the defendant has previously been convicted of a crime related to “aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” The defendant had been convicted of sex abuse of his 53-year-old girlfriend eleven years earlier. The question was, does sex abuse against an adult trigger the minimum? Judge Sterling Johnson held that it did and the Supreme Court agreed, reasoning that the “rule of the last antecedent” settled the matter.

Here’s how it works. In the sentence in quotes above, the defense argued, the phrase “involving a minor or ward” seems to apply to the whole sentence, so that the three different crimes — aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, and abusive sexual conduct — only ought to trigger the ten-year minimum if they involve a minor or a ward. Makes sense right? Child pornography is about abuse of children, not sexual abuse generally which in New York can be very broad, applying to all non-consensual sexual contact and sometimes not even requiring sex offender registration if no child is involved. Why would sex abuse increase the sentence by ten years unless it was sex abuse against a child?

Not so fast, said the Supreme Court: “the phrase ‘involving a minor or ward’ modifies only the phrase that it immediately follows: ‘abusive sexual conduct.’ … [T]he phrases ‘aggravated sexual abuse’ and ‘sexual abuse’ are not so constrained.” To come to this conclusion, six justices dusted off the “timeworn textual canon” that the last phrase only modifies its immediate predecessor in a statute.

New York passed the Sex Offender Registration Act to be retroactive to people who still were on probation or parole as of January 21, 1996. In the months that followed, all probationers and parolees previously convicted of an enumerated offense, as well as people newly convicted, started registering. At that time, registration for low-risk offenders was for ten years. But in 2006, just as the ten years was running out, the Legislature upped it to twenty years. A pending proposal tries to play the same trick again, increasing the duration of registration to thirty years for most low-risk offenders.

But January 21st has come and gone without any legislative action. As a result low-risk offenders forced to register for twenty years starting in 1996 are starting to come off the registry. Others have petitioned successfully to reduce their risk to Level One, meaning they will come off in the coming months, after twenty years passes from their initial registration.

For many, wearing the scarlet letter of sex offender registration has been awful, with no identifiable benefit to public safety. The Legislature sensibly let it end for offenders deemed by a judge to be low risk. If you have been registered for twenty years and are currently Level Two, you may be able to benefit from a petition for modification — a request to the court to lower your risk level to Level One, which means after twenty years, you are done. Call our office for more information.

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