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North Carolina Playpen Member “amoura” Sentenced to Federal Prison

According to Andrew Murray, the United States Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, a man from Asheville, North Carolina was sentenced to nine years in prison for receiving and possessing child pornography. In addition to the prison sentence, the Asheville man will spend the remainder of his life on supervised release as a registered sex offender. According to evidence provided by the prosecution, the man was an active member of the dark web child abuse forum “Playpen.”

The man, Carl Jack Hall, 51, had actively used the dark web child abuse forum Playpen to download illegal pictures and videos that depicted child pornography. The content accessed, according to the defense, was far from the worst content available on the forum. A two-count indictment returned by a grand jury on December 6, 2016, accused Hall of knowingly receiving and attempting to receive child pornograpahy on August 24, 2015. He continued receiving until July 15, 2015. The indictment also accused him of knowingly possessing child pornography and accessing child pornography with intent to view during the same 11-month period identified in the first charge of the two-count indictment.

The charges and later conviction stemmed from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Operation Pacifier,” a controversial investigation into the owner and users of one of the (at the time) most prolific child abuse forums on the dark web. As with many Operation Pacifier cases, Hall’s case was convoluted and filled with motions to suppress evidence, motions to dismiss charges, motions for extensions, orders denying all but the motions for extensions of time, and countless references to other Operation Pacifier cases that unfolded throughout the United States during the case against Hall. Both the prosecution and defense pointed to examples of other court rulings in favour of their respective arguments.

Hall challenged the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s premise for the entire operation. The motions filed by the defense focused primarily on two points: the validity of the warrant from the Eastern District of Virginia and the “outrageous government conduct” demonstrated in the FBI’s decision to seize Playpen and operate it between February 20, 2015, and March 4, 2015. The overwhelming majority of defendants caught in the FBI’s Operation Pacifier dragnet contested the validity of the FBI’s evidence. The warrant from the Eastern District of Virginia presented a host of legal problems for the prosecution.

The warrant in question allowed the FBI to use a network investigative technique (NIT) on visitors of Playpen. The Bureau seized the forum and moved it to government servers in Virginia after a mistake by the owner of the forum led the police to the server that had hosted Playpen. Centrilogic, a data center mentioned in the warrant, allegedly hosted the forum and disclosed to the FBI that Steven Chase owned and operated the server in question. After moving the forum to their own servers, the FBI obtained a warrant from United States Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan of the Eastern District of Virginia. Since the judge had no authority outside her jurisdiction and Hall lived outside her jurisdiction, he questioned the validity of the warrant. Even in his motion to dismiss the evidence discovered through the use of the NIT, Hall’s defense mentioned that the court, even if the warrant was ruled invalid, would allow the evidence to remain under the good faith exception.

So the second point the defense raised, in the expectation of a denial of the motion to suppress based on the validity of the warrant, was that the FBI committed outrageous conduct by committing a crime or helping commit a crime. This motion referenced the fact that the FBI maintained a child abuse forum for 12 days. During those 12 days, the FBI reported 30,000 new user accounts. While controlling the site, the FBI logged site usernames in connection with the public IP addresses discovered by the NIT malware that members unknowingly downloaded while accessing the forum. On March 1, 2015, a user under the name “amoura” logged in and accessed illegal content. Days later, the FBI subpoenaed Charter, the ISP used by the “amoura” account. Charter identified Hall as the subscriber connected to the IP address in question.

“Dismissal of an indictment for outrageous government conduct is warranted when the government becomes intimately involved in the commission of a crime,” Hall’s attorney wrote in a motion. The government denied both motions and a jury found Hall guilty on both counts in January 2018.

He will spend the next 108 months in federal prison.

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