They’re questioning whether federal agents had the right to seize computers – and gigabytes of incriminating evidence – in Texas and elsewhere across the country that were used to access a dark web server based in Virginia.
A lawyer for Missouri City man accused of downloading child pornography from the dark website argued Wednesday the FBI overstepped its bounds in the 2015 sting, which nabbed 200 defendants nationwide.
FBI officials say the seizure was legal, approved by a search warrant from a federal magistrate in Virginia that ultimately led agents to visitors to the website. It is critical, they say, to fighting cyber crime.
FBI’s Operation Pacifier began in early 2015 after the FBI tracked down the server of an illegal child pornography site called Playpen. Agents got a search warrant in Virginia from a federal magistrate judge, who gave them permission to keep the site running in Quantico for a few weeks while they used malware to detect the IP addresses of visitors who had logged onto the site.
One of the thousands of these decrypted IP address led agents to the Missouri City home of Louis Clifford Smith Jr., a retired IT specialist for the City of Houston.
An FBI agent and Pearland police officer arrived in July 2015 with a warrant and found hundreds of explicit images of prepubescent girls in sexual situations with naked men.
Smith was indicted for receipt, possession and access with intent to view child pornography, and pleaded guilty to all charges the following October.
Smith has since withdrawn his guilty plea, with the approval of U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon, and is now fighting to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the Virginia search warrant.
On Wednesday, his attorney, Guy Womack, argued before the judge that she would have to determine whether the FBI’s search of that server took place in the Eastern District of Virginia or in the Southern District of Texas.
“They couldn’t identify who was on the site, that’s why they used this novel, illegal tactic,” Womack said.
Harmon said she expects to reach a decision this week on the motion to suppress the evidence.