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United States v. Monroe

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

November 1, 2018



          William E. Smith, Chief Judge

         On May 12, 2016, law enforcement agents executed a search warrant for the Warwick, Rhode Island residence of Defendant Jordan Monroe. The agents' search uncovered a hoard of child pornography on various computers and digital storage devices. A federal grand jury subsequently indicted Monroe for allegedly producing, receiving, and possessing such materials in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2251 and 2252.

         The trail of digital breadcrumbs that led to Monroe's door began with several pornographic videos downloaded from an internet file sharing service by an unknown user. Pursuant to § 2703(d) of the Stored Communications Act, the Government obtained orders from two federal magistrate judges from the District of Columbia requiring the Georgia-based file sharing service to disclose the unique internet protocol (“IP”) address for any device that had downloaded the illicit files. The Government later learned from an internet service provider that the disclosed IP address was assigned to an individual at Monroe's residence.

         Monroe has moved for an order suppressing “all evidence obtained as a result of the unlawful acquisition of [his] IP address.” (Def.'s Mot. to Suppress 1, ECF No. 24.) He argues that the § 2703(d) disclosure orders were void ab initio because the District of Columbia magistrate judges lacked jurisdiction over the alleged crime. Relying on the Supreme Court's reasoning in Carpenter v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2206 (2018), Monroe also contends that the Government violated his Fourth Amendment rights by procuring his IP address without a search warrant supported by probable cause. Neither argument is tenable. Thus, for the reasons stated below, Monroe's Motion to Suppress (ECF No. 24) is DENIED.

         I. Background

         In September 2015, agents from Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) and personnel from the U.S. Department of Justice's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, High Technology Investigative Unit (“CEOS-HTIU”) jointly investigated an internet-based bulletin board dedicated to the advertisement, distribution, and production of child pornography.[1] (Search Warrant Appl. Aff. of James V. Richardson (“Richardson Aff.”) ¶¶ 6, 10, ECF No. 25-5.) The bulletin board is located on “The Onion Router” or “TOR, ” a network which masks users' location and usage data to avoid surveillance. (Id. ¶ 7.) Only members can download content from the bulletin board; a prospective member must post pornographic content to the site to access additional privileges. (Id. ¶ 8.)

         Investigators identified and captured content from numerous board posts throughout the autumn and early winter. (Id. ¶ 10.) These posts included links to URLs[2] enabling members to view and download video files. (See 1/4/16 Appl. for § 2703(d) Order (“1/4/16 Appl.”) ¶¶ 5-6, ECF No. 25-3; 12/7/15 Appl. for § 2703(d) Order (“12/7/15 Appl.”) ¶¶ 5-6, ECF No. 25-1.) HSI agents working at the CEOS-HTIU in Washington, D.C. accessed the bulletin board in an undercover capacity, downloaded the suspect video files from the posts' URLs, and reviewed the files to confirm their illicit content. (Richardson Aff. ¶¶ 10-11; 12/7/15 Appl. ¶ 6.)

         The video files posted to the bulletin board were stored or “hosted” on servers maintained by a separate, cloud-based file sharing site (“FSS”). (See Richardson Aff. ¶ 12.) In the ordinary course of its business, the FSS maintains records about users who upload or download content to its servers, including the IP addresses of devices associated with such events.[3] (See id. ¶ 16; 12/7/15 Appl. ¶ 7.) The FSS maintains its operations and stores its data in Atlanta, Georgia. (See 12/7/15 Appl. at 1.)

         In early December, the Government applied to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) for an order compelling the FSS to produce its records for eleven URLs linking to video files depicting child pornography. (See generally id.) A District of Columbia magistrate judge granted the application. (See Order 1, ECF No. 25-2.) The order required the FSS to disclose, among other records: (1) the IP address of any device that uploaded or downloaded content from the target URLs; and (2) the dates and times these files were uploaded or downloaded. (Id. at Attach. A.) The Government followed an identical investigative process to support an application for a § 2703(d) order for records related to eighteen more URLs on January 6, 2016. (See generally 1/4/16 Appl.) The January application was also granted. (See Order 1, ECF No. 25-4.)

         The records produced in response to the orders revealed that two particular IP addresses downloaded or attempted to download the illicit content hosted by the FSS' servers on October 27, 2015 and December 31, 2015. (Richardson Aff. ¶¶ 17, 27.) Using publicly available search tools, the Government identified the internet service provider that controlled these IP addresses. (Id. ¶¶ 18, 28.) The internet service provider, in response to Department of Justice subpoenas, disclosed that in both instances the IP address was assigned to a subscriber at Monroe's Warwick, Rhode Island residence. (Id. ¶¶ 19, 29.) Government agents conducted further surveillance and investigated the home's occupants, including Monroe. (Id. ¶¶ 20-24.)

         On May 10, 2016, the Government set forth the substance of these facts in an application for a search warrant for the Warwick residence. (See generally Appl. for Search Warrant, ECF No. 25-5.) The application was submitted to and approved by a magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. (See Search & Seizure Warrant, ECF No. 25-5.) Agents executed the search warrant two days later, uncovering the cache of child pornography. (See Aff. of James V. Richardson in Support of an Appl. for Cr. Compl. 2-3, ECF No. 1-2). Monroe made incriminating statements to government agents during a contemporaneous interview. (Id. at 3; see also Mem. & Order 9-19, ECF No. 29 (denying motion to suppress statements made during interrogation in Monroe's home).)

         II. Discussion

         A. Did the District of Columbia Magistrate Judges Have Jurisdiction to Issue the § 2703(d) Orders?

         The privacy of stored electronic communications and transac-tional records is governed by the federal Stored Communications Act (“SCA”). See generally 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2711. Section 2703 of the SCA specifically establishes “the rules that the government must follow when it seeks to compel a [third-party service] provider to disclose information.” Orin S. Kerr, A User's Guide to the Stored Communications Act, and a Legislator's Guide to Amending it, 72 Geo. Wash.L.Rev. 1208, 1218 (2004).[4] The standard the Government must satisfy to compel disclosure varies with the nature of the materials requested. Basic subscriber information such as a customer's name, address, or payment details may be easily procured from a provider through a subpoena. See 18 U.S.C. ยง 2703(c)(2). If the Government seeks the content of stored electronic ...

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