Original Digital Silk Road Founder Loses Appeal of Life Sentence

By George Khoury, Esq. on June 01, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Yesterday, the Federal Second Circuit Court in Manhattan, New York, issued their decision denying the appeal of Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the infamous, anonymous digital black market, Silk Road. Ulbricht, who went by the web alias Dread Pirate Roberts, was sentenced to life in prison for founding and operating what has been described as the eBay for illegal drugs and other illegal items. At this point, he will continue to serve his sentence unless a Supreme Court appeal is filed and successful.

Ulbricht was not alleged to have sold anything himself using the platform he created. However, creating and continuing to maintain the site led to an FBI investigation, Ulbricht's eventual arrest, and Silk Road being shut down. During the investigation, it was discovered that Ulbricht hired two contract killers to murder 5 individuals that threatened his business. However, he was not convicted on the murders as there was no evidence they were ever completed.

Details of the Case

Although UIbricht's appeal argued for a reversal and new trial, it primarily sought to overturn the life sentence as an unreasonable punishment. Under federal sentencing laws, individuals sentenced to life are not eligible for parole. Although the drugs sold on Silk Road were tied to numerous overdose deaths and injuries, Ulbricht argued that the sentence did not fit the severity of the actual crime committed.

It was argued that some evidence obtained by the FBI was discovered as a result of an illegal search in violation of Ulbricht's Fourth Amendment Rights. This argument was premised upon the FBI's retrieval of IP addresses, which led to Ulbricht's discovery. However, the appeals court ruled that the IP addresses, like the phone numbers a person dials, are not protected by privacy rights in the same way as the content of the communications are protected. It further explained that this interpretation could only be overturned by a Supreme Court decision.

Further, Ulbricht argued that the evidence showing law enforcement corruption was not taken into account. After his trial, it was discovered that two law enforcement agents stole Bitcoins that were supposed to be evidence in the case. However, the court explained that the incidents of law enforcement corruption were not linked to any alleged framing of Ulbricht, and as such, had no impact on the conviction.

Lastly, regarding the life sentence, the appeals court found the lower court made no error in judgment. The Second Circuit ruled that the sentence was appropriate given the circumstances. Particularly given the desire of the court to set an example for what is considered an emerging criminal activity, the life sentence was found to be justified.

As for the Silk Road, another attempt was made to reopen the illicit market. However, it was again shut down, and the new operator arrested and charged.

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