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11th Circuit Reverses Conviction for Distribution of Child Pornography

April 23, 2018

In U.S. v. Carroll, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s conviction for distribution of child pornography because the government failed to show that the defendant knew that the files downloaded from a peer-to-peer file-sharing program were capable of being distributed to others.

The evidence at trial showed that the defendant was downloading child pornography using the file-sharing program Ares. The program’s default settings directed the downloaded files to a shared folder which allowed others to access them. Unless these settings were changed by the user, anyone using the program could gain access to these files.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the government failed to show he had knowledge that others would have access to these files. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, noting that the conviction for distribution required some showing that the defendant consciously allowed others to access the files. The Court conceded that placing or leaving files in a shared folder accessible by a peer-to-peer network could constitute distribution, but found nothing in the record to show that the defendant intended, or even knew, that the contents of the shared folder would be automatically distributed through the peer-to-peer network.

The government argued that the defendant was properly convicted of distribution based purely on the defendant’s general knowledge of the nature of peer-to-peer file sharing networks. However, the government’s own witness, a former GBI agent, testified that Ares automatically placed files into the shared folder and distributed them without prompting or alerting the user to this fact.

The Court drew a distinction between this scenario and one where knowledge could be shown or inferred: for example, a peer-to-peer program that, during installation, asked the user to select whether to share files, or one that required the user’s authorization each time someone requested to share a file.

As a result, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction for distribution but affirmed his conviction for possession of child pornography.

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