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People Accused of Child Pornography Offenses Get To Examine The Software Used To Prosecute Them And Don’t Have To Just Take The Government’s Word On It (in the Ninth Circuit)

Max Budziak had some child pornography on his computer.

An FBI agent, using a program developed by the FBI called EP2P, logged onto his computer through the internet and downloaded child pornography from him on two separate days in July, 2007.

1165303_green_power.jpgLimeWire and EP2P

The FBI said that EP2P is a souped-up version of LimeWire – a file sharing program that is publicly available and lets people share files with each other’s computers.

LimeWire normally pieces together bits of disparate fragments from different LimeWire users. So, for example, if you wanted to download “The Usual Suspects” from LimeWire, you would get fragments from different users.

For whatever reason, some folks think that poses an intellectual property problem. LimeWire has currently been shut down – check out their website.

According to the FBI, if a computer is hooked up to LimeWire, EP2P lets the FBI see all of the files that the LimeWire user is making available on the internet and, more importantly, download all of them from a single user.

The Search of Mr. Budziak’s Home

Based on the information from EP2P, the FBI got a warrant and searched Mr. Budziak’s home. They found a desktop computer with a copy of LimeWire installed on it.

There were five child pornography videos on the computer in a LimeWire shared folder.

Mr. Budziak was charged with two counts of distributing child pornography – to FBI agents – and one count of possessing it when the search was executed.

What’s Up With EP2P?

Mr. Budziak’s defense, in essence, was that he didn’t understand that LimeWire has a default setting that shares your files with people.

This matters, because if he didn’t intend to share the files, he isn’t guilty of intentionally distributing child pornography.

He also wanted to get information about how EP2P works so that he could challenge the search of his house and the affidavit that authorized it.

The FBI, ever helpful, provided a number of affidavits of how EP2P works. Mr. Budziak’s counsel said that they’d like to examine the software for themselves (or, rather, have their expert examine it).

His lawyer filed three separate motions to compel the government to provide access so that he could examine the software that allowed the government to prosecute him. Each motion was denied by the district court.

Mr. Budziak went to trial and was convicted of all counts. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

The Ninth Circuit Says You Don’t Have To Trust The Government

On appeal, in United States v. Budziak, the Ninth Circuit vacated based on the district court’s failure to order the government to provide access to the EP2P software.

The Ninth Circuit explained that once a person accused of a crime makes a threshold showing that evidence is material, the government is obligated to turn it over. As the court of appeals said:

Budziak argues that he made a sufficient showing that discovery of the EP2P software was material to preparing his defense. We agree. All three of Budziak’s motions to compel provided more than a general description of the information sought; they specifically requested disclosure of the EP2P program and its technical specifications. Budziak also identified specific defenses to the distribution charge that discovery on the EP2P program could potentially help him develop. In support of his first two motions to compel, Budziak presented evidence suggesting that the FBI may have only downloaded fragments of child pornography files from his “incomplete” folder, making it “more likely” that he did not knowingly distribute any complete child pornography files to Agents Lane or Whisman. Stever, 603 F.3d at 753. In support of his third motion to compel, Budziak submitted evidence suggesting that the FBI agents could have used the EP2P software to override his sharing settings.

Perhaps more succinctly, the court of appeals noted that “[g]iven that the distribution charge against Budziak was premised on the FBI’s use of the EP2P program to download files from him, it is logical to conclude that the functions of the program were relevant to his defense.”

The government argued that handing the EP2P program over wouldn’t matter, since they turned over the logs and the software itself won’t be any more useful. The court of appeals shot that down:

In cases where the defendant has demonstrated materiality, the district court should not merely defer to government assertions that discovery would be fruitless. While we have no reason to doubt the government’s good faith in such matters, criminal defendants should not have to rely solely on the government’s word that further discovery is unnecessary. This is especially so where, as here, a charge against the defendant is predicated largely on computer software functioning in the manner described by the government, and the government is the only party with access to that software.

Of course, Mr. Budziak isn’t out of the woods yet. For him to reverse his conviction for good, he’ll have to show that if he had access to the EP2P software it could have mattered. And on that question the Ninth Circuit remanded to the district court.

Here’s to hoping the district court makes up its mind before Mr. Budziak has finished his sentence.

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