Child pornography investigations are relatively simple. Law enforcement has the software to track who is on file sharing sites where images of child pornography may be posted, viewed or downloaded. Known images of child pornography have a numerical hashtag value that allow law enforcement to see exactly what IP addresses are sharing these images.
Once the IP addresses are identified, administrative subpoenas are forwarded to the service provider of these IP addresses (AT&T, Verizon etc.) and these subpoenas will reveal who is the owner of that account. Once account owners have been identified, further investigation will determine the details of that account holder’s address and from there a search warrant of the home is prepared and signed by a District Court judge.
Search warrant executions in child pornography cases usually take place in the early morning hours and law enforcement tends to use a shock and awe approach. It is not uncommon for six to ten law enforcement officials to be involved in a single search warrant. The occupants of the house are stunned with the loud announcements and embarrassed at the site of six cruisers in front of the house.
Family members are immediately separated and computer equipment is subject to an initial scan. This scan usually reveals the presence of child pornography on one or more devices. At this point, law enforcements will request a recorded statement from the owner or user of these electronic devices – and they usually get one.
This is where timing is critical.
It is early in the morning, the subject (person) of the search warrant is without question under severe duress and usually waives their right to remain silent and succumbs to the request for a statement. Once the user admits to searching, viewing and/or storing images of child pornography, it is game-set-match for law enforcement.
At this point, defendants are arrested and brought to court.
A typical defendant facing child pornography possession charges can expect to be released on severe restrictions, such as no access to the internet and no contact with minors. Their names will appear in the latest state or local police press release.
Possession of child pornography is a felony charge in Rhode Island and the screening process to get these cases to superior court takes approximately six months. During this time, defendants should seek counsel right away to amend the bail conditions and allow them to live and work while the case is pending. During this screening process, law enforcement may seek the review of attorneys at the United States Attorney General’s office to determine if there is any interest in pursuing federal charges. Federal offenses typically carry substantial jail offenses, including mandatory minimum sentences of five or more years.
Attorney John E. MacDonald is a veteran in the defense of child pornography criminal charges in Rhode Island, since the law first passed in 2001.