A child pornography case in Washington has shockingly escalated as an appeals court determined the U.S. Navy has been engaged in a “routine” and “widespread” program of “hacking” into private citizens’ computers and turning over information to law enforcement agencies.
In a decision filed Sept. 12, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals called the revelations such a “massive” and “extraordinary” violation of the law it threw out evidence the Navy had collected against Michael Allan Dreyer of Algona, Washington, who had been sentenced in 2012 to 18 years in prison for distribution of child pornography.
According to court documents, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, agent in Georgia named Steve Logan trolled for traces of child pornography on computers across Washington State. When Logan discovered offending content on Dreyer’s computer, the agent turned the information over to the police.
The judges ruled Logan’s action a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the military from enforcing civilian laws, and warned greater action needs to be taken to stop the NCIS from continuing the practice.
“There could be no bona fide military purpose to this indiscriminate peeking into civilian computers,” Senior 9th Circuit Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote in a concurring opinion with the majority. “Letting a criminal go free to deter national military investigation of civilians is worth it.”
“The extraordinary nature of the surveillance here demonstrates a need to deter future violations,” the court ruled. “So far as we can tell from the record, it has become a routine practice for the Navy to conduct surveillance of all the civilian computers in an entire state to see whether any child pornography can be found on them, and then to turn over the information to civilian law enforcement when no military connection exists. This is squarely a case of the military undertaking the initiative to enforce civilian law against civilians.”
The ruling continued, “Agent Logan carried out these searches repeatedly. He was monitoring another computer at the same time that he found Dreyer’s IP address. And he was involved with at least twenty other child pornography investigations. Further, Agent Logan was not the only NCIS agent who engaged in such searches.”
Erik Levin, the former federal public defender who represented Dreyer during his trial and appeal, told the Seattle Times this case takes the “militarization of police” rhetoric that spiked following the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, to whole new level.
“This,” Levin said, “is the real militarization of police – when the military becomes the police.”
The 9th Circuit Appeals panel unanimously agreed.
“This case,” Kleinfeld wrote, “amounts to the military acting as a national police force to investigate civilian law violations by civilians.”
He continued, “This is more ‘widespread’ than any military investigation of civilians in any case that has been brought to our attention.”
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, whose office prosecuted Dreyer and argued the appeal, called the 9th Circuit’s opinion “wrong,” the Times reported.
In its appellate briefs, U.S. government attorneys argued Logan was a civilian employee of the NCIS and that his role in the investigation was peripheral.
The Navy’s argument held little water with the judges.
“Such an expansive reading of the military role in the enforcement of civilian laws demonstrates a profound lack of regard for the important limitations on the role of the military in our civilian society,” wrote Judge Marsha Berzon.