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Ross Ulbricht's Appeal Rejected, Judges Blast Drug Policy

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US Judges uphold Ross Ulbricht’s life sentence Reuters reported on May 31, as the self-confessed mastermind of the infamous Silk Road deep web marketplace lost an appeal to overturn his conviction.

On May 31, 2017, the Court of Appeals in New York rejected the appeal, where Ulbricht’s lawyers argued that their client was not given a fair trial due to the failure consider evidence of corruption by two federal agents involved in the Silk Road investigation, both of whom seem to have been treated in parallel to Ulbricht’s case.

In December 2015, former U.S. Secret Service and Silk Road Task Force agent Shaun Bridges was sentenced 71 months in jail for money laundering, obstruction of justice and fraud. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Carl Force also pleaded guilty to money laundering relating to stolen bitcoin from the site and received a prison sentence.

33-year-old Ulbricht now faces life behind bars and will not be eligible for parole; while he admitted to creating Silk Road in 2011, he has denied allegations of operating the site, which was run by a pseudonym known as Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR). Both law enforcement agents Bridges and Force infiltrated the site posing as administrators and drug dealers on the site, where Force created numerous accounts outside of his mandate, blackmailing and selling Dread Pirate Roberts supposed information of the US government investigation of Silk Road for personal gain in the form of bitcoin.   

Silk Road, Deaths, and Drama

In February 2015, Ulbricht was found guilty of helping to enable drug sales using bitcoin. Prosecutors also pointed to six deaths related to the Silk Road website at the time, as a result of overdose. Ulbricht argued that overall the net impact was positive since there was a ‘cream of the crop’ effect with the feedback system in place, and he even hired a physician who gave advice to the users and spent several hours a day on the site. Further, the six deaths were not conclusively linked to Silk Road, as toxicology reports, death certificates and so on were missing as well as non-consideration of other drugs the victims took that were not from the deep web marketplace.

Almost $200 million worth of drugs were sold during 2011 to 2013, with a lower court finding that is was likely that Ulbricht arranged five assassinations to protect the anonymity of the site with dozens of message linked to Dread Pirate Roberts talking of killing blackmailers. There is no evidence any of the murders took place, leaving them as attempted murders; the defense argued that Ulbricht fantasised about such killings and did not think they would be carried out. The documentary about the capture of Ulbricht, Deep Web, also alludes to the point that different individuals accessed the account of DPR.

The appeal also argued that the district court dismissed the motion to suppress evidence that was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, that is referring to the unwarranted searches that led to the capture of Ulbricht. From the appeal document, the pre-investigation violated Ulbricht’s personal privacy:

“According to Ulbricht, the government’s use of his home Internet routing data violated the Fourth Amendment because it helped the government match Ulbricht’s online activity with DPR’s use of Silk Road. Ulbricht argues that he has a constitutional privacy interest in IP address traffic to and from his home and that the government obtained the pen/trap orders without a warrant, which would have required probable cause.”

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Also, the seizure of his laptop, Facebook and Google accounts were also argued to violate his constitutionally given rights but the district court ruling stated that there is a difference between the breadth and particularity of a warrant, where the breadth of the warrant issued made such searches lawful.

US Judges Blast Drug Policy

For non-violent crimes and perhaps a more mature approach to regulating the drug trade, Ulbricht faces what many deem a draconian punishment; a clearly bright young man will spend his life bound to a prison cell. Yes, many people may have purchased drugs from the comfort of their home, but at the end of the day it progressed individual freedom and personal choice.

If we misinform people about drugs, they will be misused. If educated correctly, addiction, harm and misuse can all be reduced and perhaps eliminated. In essence, it is down to personal choice; prohibition has shown to have failed, maybe Ulbricht's severe sentence can serve as a lesson to reformulate our approach to drugs, grow up a bit and incentivize people to make good choices. Even the three district court judges gave a scathing review of the current drug policy and stated:

“It is very possible that, at some future point, we will come to regard these policies as tragic mistakes and adopt less punitive and more effective methods of reducing the incidence and costs of drug use. At this point in our history, however, the democratically-elected representatives of the people have opted for a policy of prohibition, backed by severe punishment.”

What happens next and what the options are for Ulbricht are unclear. An appeal may be reinstated through the U.S. Supreme Courts but given the geographical scale and notoriety of the case, overturning the ruling would maybe make the justice system look a bit weak. Either the laws will have to be changed considering drugs or they will have to stick to their guns. But even the harsh sentences have not deterred the underground economy, with the number, and sales, of deep web marketplaces increasing since 2013.

Justice for Ross

Early Bitcoin developer Amir Taaki in a recent interview on the Tatiana Show said that Silk Road is what made Bitcoin popular, as it allowed people the personal freedom and used the cryptocurrency as a potent weapon to push forward ideology. Taaki rejected the view of Dread Pirate Roberts as a ‘kind of black market gangster profiteer’ and said instead that he seemed to have some sort of ‘divine purpose.’ Taaki provided some advice for those who strive for justice for Ross Ulbricht, where he stated:

“If people want justice for Ross Ulbricht, I would say the biggest thing that you could be doing is building more technology to support the struggle for freedom – political technology in the same vain as Bitcoin and Silk Road… [Bitcoin and Silk Road] are a landmark in history because technological is a driver of the civilizational process.”

Another way to provide to support includes the Free Ross Ulbricht movement, set up by Ross’s mother Lyn Ulbricht. The fundraising effort to deliver justice for Ulbricht has raised over 888 bitcoin since inception. The case is important not just because of Ross’s life and his loss of freedom, but also because Ulbricht’s life sentence sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

There are still many question marks around what really happened with the Silk Road investigation. There is a chance that corruption in the secret services and law enforcement may have framed Ulbricht for the murder for hires, allowing condemnation of him as a typical ‘drug lord’ when, in fact, he may have just been a brave pioneer with no ill intentions. As a man who strived for non-violence, to create a safer environment for the drug trade, there is a clear dichotomy between the evidence brought against him as Dread Pirate Roberts and the persona behind Ross Ulbricht, something most evident to his family.