On May 31, 2017, a federal appeals court upheld the rulings made by US District Judge Kathleen Forrest and thereby confirmed Ross Ulbricht’s life sentence. Ulbricht received a lifetime in prison without a chance of parole in 2015. His defense prepared “dozens of pages” that challenged her decisions. The judges dismissed everything brought to their attention.
However, the the three judges agreed the life sentence might not have been their course of action. Despite this, the judges found no reason to overturn Judge Forrest’s sentencing. And this is in accord with the US legal system; even if they agreed that life in prison was “quite a leap” from the status quo, the appeal provided no arguments that would have significantly impacted Ulbricht’s sentence, they explained.
Ulbricht’s defense argued that the five warrantless pen register and trap and trace orders violated his fourth amendment rights. However, as seen in the FBI’s Operation Pacifier fallout (botched court cases), judges have ruled that a person should have no expectation of privacy regarding IP addresses. So the defense’s argument that the federal government wiretapped his private residence without a warrant was thrown out.
The 33-year-old “kingpin” also argued that law enforcement’s warrant that allowed officers to seize and search his computer was too vague. He claimed that it was open ended. The court disagreed that the open ended warrant was in violation of his rights as an American citizen. According to the three-judge panel, the warrant needed a particular vagueness—if the warrant specified only specific locations, investigators would have come up empty handed; Ulbricht, for instance, hid a Torchat log in a file titled “mbsobzvkhwx4hmjt.”
Carl Force and Shaun Bridges, both currently in prison, landed in the appeal. The defense explained that the corrupt federal agents who investigated Ulbricht may have tampered with evidence beyond bitcoins. We know that both agents stole Bitcoin from Silk Road accounts. (Maybe a third). They had access to Silk Road administrator accounts and could have leveraged those to turn the case even further against Ulbricht, the defense argued.
The defense provided no evidence to that effect, the judges explained:
“Ulbricht still has not shown how the agents’ corrupt behavior is exculpatory. The relevant question, on which none of Ulbricht’s arguments casts any light or raises any doubt, is whether any particular item of evidence was tainted in some way by the misconduct of Bridges or Force. Nothing in the government’s disclosures, and nothing that Ulbricht identifies in the record or has produced from any independent source, suggests that either Bridges or Force had such capacity.”
Judge Forrest kept the Carl Mark Force case sealed until after Ulbricht’s trial. Skeptics frowned upon this as it appeared unethical—and may well have been. However, the sentencing judge said that Ulbricht needed no disclosure. And, on a more sobering note, the federal government investigated the agent through Ulbricht’s trial. She said that revealing the case against Force might have compromised the investigation.
And on a final note, Circuit Judge Lynch explained that Judge Forrest made the right move when she considered the would-be murders a factor in Ulbricht’s sentencing. “He wanted the murders to be committed, he paid for them, and he believed that they had been carried out,” Judge Lynch said. “The fact that his hired assassin may have defrauded him does not reflect positively on Ulbricht’s character.”
“Courts have the power to condemn a young man to die in prison, and judges must exercise that power only in a small number of cases after the deepest thought and reflection,” the judges concluded.