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United States v. Levin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 5, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
ALEX LEVIN, Defendant.

AMENDED MEMORANDUM & ORDER

WILLIAM G. YOUNG, DISTRICT JUDGE

I. INTRODUCTION

Alex Levin is charged with possession of child pornography. Compl. 1, ECF No. 1. The government obtained evidence of Levin’s alleged crime in three steps. First, it seized control of a website that distributed the illicit material at issue (“Website A”). Next, it obtained a series of search warrants that allowed the government to identify individual users who were accessing content on Website A. One of these warrants involved the deployment of a Network Investigative Technique (the “NIT Warrant”). Finally, the government searched[1] the computers of certain of these individuals, including Levin.

Levin has moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the issuance of the NIT Warrant, arguing that the NIT Warrant is void for want of jurisdiction under the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 636(a), and additionally that it violated Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(b). Def.’s Mot. Suppress Evidence (“Def.’s Mot.”) 5-6, ECF No. 44. The government contends that the NIT Warrant was valid and that, in any event, suppression is not an appropriate remedy on these facts. Gov’t’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Suppress (“Gov’t’s Resp.”) 1, ECF No. 60.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This case involves a far-reaching and highly publicized investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in early 2015 to police child pornography.[2] The investigation focused on Website A, which was accessible to users only through the “Tor” network -- software designed to preserve users’ anonymity by masking their IP addresses.[3] See Def.’s Mot., Ex. 3, Aff. Supp. Application Search Warrant (“Aff. Supp. NIT Warrant”) 10-12, ECF No. 44-3.

As an initial step in their investigation, FBI agents seized control of Website A in February 2015. See id. at 21-23. Rather than immediately shutting it down, agents opted to run the site out of a government facility in the Eastern District of Virginia for two weeks in order to identify -- and ultimately, to prosecute -- users of Website A. See id. at 23. To do this required the deployment of certain investigative tools. See Id. at 23-24.

To that end, the government sought and obtained a series of warrants. First, on February 20, 2015, the government procured an order pursuant to Title III from a district judge in the Eastern District of Virginia permitting the government to intercept communications between Website A users. Def.’s Mot., Ex. 2 (“Title III Warrant”), ECF No. 44-2. Second, also on that date, the government obtained a warrant from a magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Virginia to implement a Network Investigative Technique (“NIT”) that would allow the government covertly to transmit computer code to Website A users.[4] NIT Warrant, ECF No. 44-3. This computer code then generated a communication from those users’ computers to the government-operated server containing various identifying information, including those users’ IP addresses.[5] See Aff. Supp. NIT Warrant 24-26.

Through the use of the NIT, government agents determined that a Website A user called “Manakaralupa” had accessed several images of child pornography in early March 2015, and they traced the IP address of that user to Levin’s home address in Norwood, Massachusetts. Def.’s Mot., Ex. 1 (“Residential Warrant”), Aff. Supp. Application for Search Warrant (“Aff. Supp. Residential Warrant”) 11-12, ECF No. 44-1. On August 11, 2015, law enforcement officials obtained a third and final warrant (the “Residential Warrant”) from Magistrate Judge Bowler in this District to search Levin’s home. See Residential Warrant. Agents executed the Residential Warrant on August 12, 2015, and in their search of Levin’s computer, identified eight media files allegedly containing child pornography. See Compl., Ex. 2, Aff. Supp. Application Criminal Compl. ¶ 7, ECF No. 1-2.

Levin was subsequently indicted on one count of possession of child pornography, 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). Indictment, ECF No. 8. He has since moved to suppress all evidence seized pursuant to the NIT Warrant and the Residential Warrant.[6] Def.’s Mot. After holding a hearing on March 25, 2016, the Court took Levin’s motion under advisement. See Elec. Clerk’s Notes, ECF No. 62.

III. ANALYSIS

In support of his motion to suppress, Levin contends that the NIT Warrant violated the territorial restrictions on the issuing magistrate judge’s authority, [7] and further that the evidence obtained pursuant to the NIT Warrant must be suppressed in light of law enforcement agents’ deliberate disregard for the applicable rules and the prejudice Levin suffered as a consequence. See Def.’s Mot. 6-7. The government refutes each of these arguments, and additionally argues that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule renders suppression inappropriate. See Gov’t’s Resp. 1.

A. Magistrate Judge’s Authority Under the Federal Magistrates Act and Rule 41(b)

Levin argues that the issuance of the NIT Warrant ran afoul of both Section 636(a) of the Federal Magistrates Act and Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. See Def.’s Mot. 5-7, 12. The conduct underlying each of these alleged violations is identical: the magistrate judge’s issuance of a warrant to search property located outside of her judicial district. See id. Moreover, because Section 636(a) expressly incorporates any authorities granted to magistrate judges by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, see infra Part III(A)(1), the Court’s analyses of whether the NIT Warrant was statutorily permissible and whether it was allowed under Rule 41(b) are necessarily intertwined.

1. Federal Magistrates Act

Section 636(a) of the Federal Magistrates Act establishes “jurisdictional limitations on the power of magistrate judges[.]” United States v. Krueger, 809 F.3d 1109, 1122 (10th Cir. 2015) (Gorsuch, J., concurring). It provides, in relevant part:

(a) Each United States magistrate judge serving under this chapter shall have within the district in which sessions are held by the court that appointed the magistrate judge, at other places where that court may function, and elsewhere as authorized by law--
(1) all powers and duties conferred or imposed . . . by law or by the Rules of Criminal Procedure[.]

28 U.S.C. § 636(a). Levin argues that the magistrate judge’s issuance of a warrant to search property outside of her judicial district violated the territorial restrictions provided in the first paragraph of Section 636(a). Def.’s Mot. 12. In other words, because the NIT Warrant approved a search of property outside the Eastern District of Virginia (“the district in which sessions are held by the court that appointed the magistrate”), and neither of the other clauses in the first paragraph of Section 636(a) applies, Levin contends that the magistrate judge lacked jurisdiction to issue it. See id. The government, for its part, notes that Levin does not meaningfully distinguish between the requirements of the statute and of Rule 41(b), and advances the same arguments to support the magistrate judge’s authority to issue the NIT Warrant under Section 636(a) and under Rule 41(b). Gov’t’s Resp. 21.

As discussed in more detail infra Part III(A)(2)(i), the Court is persuaded by Levin’s argument that the NIT Warrant indeed purported to authorize a search of property located outside the district where the issuing magistrate judge sat. The magistrate judge had no jurisdiction to issue such a warrant under the first paragraph of Section 636(a). The Court also concludes that Section 636(a)(1) is inapposite because Rule 41(b) did not confer on the magistrate judge authority to issue the NIT Warrant Levin challenges here, see infra Part III(A)(2), and the government points to no other “law or . . . Rule[] of Criminal Procedure” on which the magistrate judge could have based its jurisdiction ...


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