Articles Posted in Sex Crimes

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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.”

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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.