Common Questions About Federal Child Porn Charges

THE FEDS JUST CAME AND TOOK MY COMPUTER! NOW WHAT HAPPENS?

Child Pornography is the Most Common Federal Sex Offense

While the states typically handle “hands-on” sex crimes, like sexual abuse and rape, the federal government sets its sights on computerized sex crimes. This includes possessing, distributing, and creating child pornography. It’s a rather easy crime for the feds, since they can conduct surveillance from afar and gather evidence at their leisure, all without alerting anyone that they know about the crime. And your computer has told the full story of how the crime went down. Computers make excellent witnesses against their owners!

Here are some common questions and answers about facing federal child pornography charges.

When will my computer be searched? They didn’t search it at my house.

That search warrant shoved in your face by the agents who stormed your house allowed them to look for and take your computer with them. They didn’t have to search it right there in front of you. Quite often, another warrant is needed to dig deeper into your computer or other devices that the feds picked up at the time of the raid. The way a search warrant is obtained, generally, is that a law enforcement agent convinces a judge that there is evidence of a crime that needs to be taken from a private place. But it must be more than merely a hunch that something illegal is happening. The law requires “probable cause,” but police officers don’t always know the difference between probable cause and a hunch. The lack of probable cause could get the child pornography evidence tossed out of court. Most often, though, the courts allow some exceptions when the cops acted in “good faith.”

Who verifies that there is child pornography on my computer?

It’s not enough that some so-called trained federal agent looked at your computer and said, “Yep, that’s child porn.” Instead, agents are supposed to run test after test, generating numerous reports that all prove you violated the federal child pornography statutes. And it works the other way around: the cops can’t simply rely on some automated screening program that says there is child porn on your computer. It has to be verified by a person. You and your lawyer should get an expert to verify that what’s on your computer is or is not child pornography.

Why is it taking so long to hear anything from the cops about what they found on my computer?

The feds are usually in no rush to file charges against you after they take your computer. While they may file charges based on things you admitted to at the interview, those are basically placeholder charges. Once the child porn evidence on your computer is gathered, more charges will often be filed. This process can take more than a year, sometimes even longer.

Both the local cops and federal agents raided my house. Is this a federal or state case?

The short answer is that it can be both. The more typical scenario is that it’s a federal case and the local authorities were simply helping the feds. Local and federal law enforcement agencies sometimes work together under what’s known as a “task force.” Legally speaking, the local cops are given authority to act as federal agents for that event.

Whether the state will file charges along with the feds depends on the case. States usually defer to the feds. Federal charges often carry heavier penalties than similar state charges, so state officials are usually content with allowing the feds to handle the case. However, sometimes state officials want to obtain a conviction of their own, especially if it was a high profile case. State prosecutors, who are often elected officials, want the spotlight and a high-profile case gives them the chance to show off. However, getting charged by both state and federal prosecutors for the same crime is not double jeopardy, the U.S. Supreme Court has said, although most people agree that it’s clearly unfair.

But I told the cops everything! Now what do I do?

Most people talk to the cops when accused of a crime because they want some leniency. They believe that the cops can help them out and maybe the charges will be less if they “take responsibility.” That’s a false and dangerous belief, though. Talking to the cops won’t help.

Even if the cops did want to help you, they can’t. They can promise you the world, but those are empty promises. Cops generally don’t have the authority under law to help you. If anyone can “help” you, it’s the prosecutor, because she’s the one who decides what charges get filed or which ones can get dropped if you help out. And beware: cops are legally allowed to lie to you in an interview, by telling you they can help you out if you admit to the crimes.

Can the feds pile on more charges?

Yes, and they usually will. If you admitted to the crime, the initial charges may be just placeholder charges to get you processed into the system and out on bond (or held in jail if bond is denied). Once the evidence on your computer is gathered, there may be further charges filed. This could include production of child pornography, under 18 U.S.C. sec 2251, if you took any of the pictures of the child or convinced a child to take pictures of themselves. And it could include charges that you distributed the images to others, if it`s found that you used a program to do so. Distribution of child pornography has become the most common federal child pornography crime.

Most often, however, the number of charges isn’t as important as the type of charges. Part of this is because even with several convictions the sentences will run concurrently. Another, and more important, reason is that the prosecutor usually piles on charges to coerce you into pleading guilty. By offering a guilty plea to only one or two child pornography charges, the prosecutor makes it very tempting for someone who’s facing 20, 30, or even hundreds of child porn charges. It’s often a scare tactic, though. You should know the sentence you’re facing under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, and not just the statutory range in the charges, before accepting any plea deal. The USSG will give you the typical sentence faced in a case similar to yours given the same facts.