Yet Another Court Says FBI's Hacking Tool In Child Porn Case Was An Illegal Search

from the the-4th-amendment-matters dept

Just last week, we wrote about another ruling in one of the many cases kicked off when the FBI took control over a Tor-based child porn site, called Playpen, and ran it for two weeks. While the courts have said that it was okay for the FBI to run a child porn service for two weeks as part of a sting operation, they've been having a lot more trouble with the fact that the FBI then used its control over the service to infect any visitor with malware in order to figure out who they were. In the ruling last week, in the case against Alex Levin, in the Massachusetts District Court, the court said that the malware/hacking tool represented an illegal search under the 4th Amendment and suppressed the evidence. The key issue was that the warrant was issued for searches in the Eastern District of Virginia, but Levin clearly was not there.

Now a court in the Northern District of Oklahoma, in a case against Scott Arterbury, has more or less reached the same conclusion. Specifically, Artebury's lawyers pointed out that his computer was "seized" by the malware (called the Network Investigative Technique or NIT), and that was clearly in Oklahoma, beyond the bounds of the warrant. The government tried to play some games, arguing that it was the data that was seized in Virginia when it accessed the FBI-hosted site. The court doesn't buy it. The NIT acted in Oklahoma, not Virginia:
The Court is not persuaded by this argument. The property seized in this instance was Arterbury’s computer, which at all relevant times remained in Oklahoma. The NIT warrant allowed the Government to send computer code or data extraction instructions to Arterbury’s computer, wherever it was located. The Government “seized” that computer and directed it to send certain information to the Government – all without Arterbury’s knowledge or permission. Arterbury’s computer was never in the Eastern District of Virginia and subsection (b)(2), therefore, does not apply. Furthermore, even if the property seized was electronic information, that property was not located in the Eastern District of Virginia at the time the warrant was signed. This information only appeared in Virginia after the Warrant was signed and executed and the Government seized control of Defendant’s computer in Oklahoma.
None of this, of course, is to absolve those who were actively engaged in activities around child pornography. But, as the judge notes, the FBI could have easily gotten an appropriate warrant:
Furthermore, the drafters of Rule 41 knew how to avoid the territorial limit on issuance of warrants when they wished to do so. Rule 41(b)((3) removes the territorial limitation in cases involving domestic or international terrorism. In such cases, a magistrate judge “with authority in any district in which activities related to the terrorism may have occurred has authority to issue a warrant for a person or property within or outside that district.” Rule 41(b)(3). The drafters of Rule 41 could easily have included child pornography in Rule 41(b)(3) and, thereby, avoided the territorial limitation of Rule 41(b)(1) & (2). They did not do so. The Court can only conclude that they did not intend to remove the territorial limit in cases such as the one before the Court.
The court then delves a bit deeper to determine if it should order the evidence suppressed. Even in some of the other cases where the court found the NIT to be an illegal search, it still allowed the evidence to be used, often because of the "good faith exception." But not here. After a long discussion about the good faith exception... the court explains it just doesn't apply here, because this wasn't just a technical error, but an error that destroys the entire warrant.
I conclude that where the Rule 41 violation goes directly to the magistrate judge’s fundamental authority to issue the warrant, as in the violation presented here, it is not a “technical violation” of the Rule. The warrant is void ab initio, suppression is warranted and the good-faith exception is inapplicable.
Once again, it's looking like the FBI and DOJ's failure to respect the 4th Amendment means that evidence will be suppressed.
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Filed Under: 4th amendment, alex levin, doj, fbi, illegal search, nit, playpen, scott arterbury


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  1. identicon
    I.T. Guy, 27 Apr 2016 @ 9:20am

    LEO's like child porn. Especially when it's one of their own posing as a teen trying to get teenage girls to sleep with him. I'd bet some of the cops brought in their thumb drives to fill up in the 2 weeks they were hosting child porn.
    -
    The below article made me lose the last shred of respect I had for cops:
    https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20121022/19034720796/police-department-rewards-officer-caught -online-pedophile-sting-with-full-retirement-benefits.shtml

    They are all liars and thieves. Period.

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