Another Court Finds FBI's NIT Warrants To Be Invalid, But Credits Agents' 'Good Faith' To Deny Suppression
from the sure,-someone-screwed-up-but-it's-not-going-to-help-you dept
Yet another court has found that the warrant used by the FBI in the Playpen child porn investigation is invalid, rendering its NIT-assisted “search” unconstitutional. As USA Today’s Brad Heath points out, this is at least the sixth court to find that Rule 41’s jurisdictional limitations do not permit warrants issued in Virginia to support searches performed all over the nation.
While the court agrees that the warrant is invalid, it places the blame at the feet of the magistrate judge who issued it, rather than the agents who obtained it.
That Congress has “not caught up” with technological advances does not change the fact that the target of the NIT in Werdene’s case was located outside of the magistrate judge’s district and beyond her jurisdiction under subsection (b)(1). The property to be seized pursuant to the NIT warrant was not the server located in Newington, Virginia, but the IP address and related material “[f]rom any ‘activating’ computer” that accessed Playpen. (Gov’t’s Opp., Ex. 1 Attach. A.) Since that material was located outside of the Eastern District of Virginia, the magistrate judge did not have authority to issue the warrant under Rule 41(b)(1).
So, unlike other cases, this will not result in a suppression of evidence, thanks to the “good faith exception.”
Werdene claims that the Government acted with intentional and deliberate disregard of Rule 41 because the FBI misled the magistrate judge “with respect to the true location of the activating computers to be searched.” (Def.’s Mem. at 17.) This argument is belied by both the warrant and warrant application. Agent Macfarlane stated in the warrant application that the “NIT may cause an activating computer—wherever located—to send to a computer controlled by or known to the government, network level messages containing information that may assist in identifying the computer, its location, other information about the computer and the user of the computer.” With this information, the magistrate judge believed that she had jurisdiction to issue the NIT warrant. Contrary to Werdene’s assertion, this is not a case where the agents “hid the ball” from the magistrate or misrepresented how the search would be conducted.
[T]o the extent a mistake was made in this case, it was not made by the agents in “reckless . . . disregard for Fourth Amendment rights.” Davis, 564 U.S. at 238 (quoting Herring, 555 U.S. at 144). Rather, it was made by the magistrate when she mistakenly issued a warrant outside her jurisdiction.
Added to this is another wrinkle that doesn’t work in the defendant’s favor. The court also follows Third Circuit precedent in finding that there is “no expectation of privacy” in an IP address, even if a person has taken measures to hide that information from others.
Werdene had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his IP address. Aside from providing the address to Comcast, his internet service provider, a necessary aspect of Tor is the initial transmission of a user’s IP address to a third-party: “in order for a prospective user to use the Tor network they must disclose information, including their IP addresses, to unknown individuals running Tor nodes, so that their communications can be directed toward their destinations.” United States v. Farrell, No. 15-cr-029, 2016 WL 705197, at *2 (W.D. Wash. Feb. 23, 2016). The court in Farrell held that “[u]nder these circumstances Tor users clearly lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in their IP addresses while using the Tor network.”
The FBI is struggling to keep its many Playpen cases from falling apart, thanks to bogus warrants, a tool it refuses to discuss, and unexpected pushback from usually ultra-compliant courts. The proposed changes to Rule 41 will remove jurisdiction limits, but it isn’t law yet. (Fortunately, there’s an actual effort to prevent this from happening, as it would only take Congressional inactivity to see it become codified.) This outcome doesn’t necessarily hurt this particular case, but yet another judge finding the warrants invalid from word one isn’t exactly a confidence-builder either.