Judges tosses evidence in Tor child porn case; rules warrant to spy on users was void

A federal judge ruled that magistrate judges lack the authority to issue warrants allowing investigators to digitally spy on suspects located outside of their jurisdictions.
A federal judge ruled that magistrate judges lack the authority to issue warrants allowing investigators to digitally spy on suspects located outside of their jurisdictions.

A federal district court judge has ruled that an Eastern Virginia magistrate overstepped her authority when granting the FBI a warrant to collect data from the user of a child pornography site, because the data itself resided on a computer located in Massachusetts, outside her jurisdiction.

Refusing to grant a good faith exception, Massachusetts Judge William Young suppressed evidence collected in the case, dealing a blow to U.S. prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against defendant Alex Levin, who is accused of downloading content from Playpen, a child porn website operating on the encrypted Tor network. The FBI seized the digital evidence from Levin in a sting operation whereby the agency took control of the Playpen's servers and then obtained a warrant from the magistrate to perform a Network Investigative Technique (NIT) that would track visitors to the site.

As a result of this operation, investigators identified Levin and searched his home, finding additional evidence, which was also tossed. “It follows that the resulting search was conducted as though there were no warrant at all. Since warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable, and the good-faith exception is inapplicable, the evidence must be excluded,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

The ruling potentially opens the door to similar challenges by other defendants charged with using the site. Judge Young recommended that future FBI operations using NITs obtain a warrant from district judges who wield power outside their jurisdictions, because investigators can't know what specific jurisdiction a suspect is located in until only after he is digitally tracked.

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