Unsecured Wireless Network Wrongly Implicates Sarasota Man in Child Porn Case

February 7, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

A recent piece about a misdirected FBI investigation caught my eye as a child pornography lawyer. As the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported Jan. 31, attorney Malcolm Riddell was temporarily wrongly accused of sending thousands of files’ worth of child pornography – because he hadn’t secured his wireless router very well. The real culprit turned out to be someone in a boat moored in the Sarasota marina 12 stories below Riddell’s condo, who was using Riddell’s network without authorization. Riddell said he knew he needed to password-protect his network, but incorrectly thought the wireless wasn’t available more than 400 feet from the router itself. He was eventually cleared of suspicion, and the FBI arrested 52-year-old Mark Brown, the boater, for possession of more than 10 million images and videos of child pornography.

Riddell found out about the investigation the hard way. One June morning in 2010, he and his wife were awoken at 6 a.m. by loud knocking and a voice announcing “FBI, open up!” When he did, a dozen armed agents entered his condo, held him against the wall and separated him from his wife for questioning. After searching his computer, the police finally told a confused Riddell what they were looking for: child pornography coming from someone using his router. Riddell, 58, said he didn’t bother password protecting his router because he didn’t believe the network reached very far and most of his neighbors were of retirement age, making it unlikely that they would steal his Internet access. But after the FBI put a tracer on the router, they discovered Brown using it from much further away to commit very serious child pornography crimes. Brown is now jailed, awaiting a trial that could put him in prison for decades if he’s convicted.

As a child pornography attorney, I’m very pleased to see that this FBI office knew enough to check whether Riddell was responsible for the traffic coming from Riddell’s router. Unfortunately, in my experience, this is not always the case. Just like everyone else, law enforcement officers can overlook or misinterpret things. To make matters worse, officers often won’t take defendants seriously if they say there must be a technical mistake, in part because people who are truly guilty will often say the same thing. In some cases, it takes an experienced cyber crime defense lawyer and a team of technical experts to prove to a jury that the defendant truly didn’t know what was going on. In the meantime, the defendants may be jailed, rudely and roughly searched as Riddell was, and spend thousands of dollars trying to exonerate themselves – not to mention the judgments they can face in the community.

Seltzer Law, P.A., is a criminal defense law firm serving people who are facing serious state or federal cyber crime charges. Our lead attorney, David Seltzer, is a former cyber crime prosecutor with substantial experience using technology to establish guilt or innocence. If you’re facing serious Internet-related criminal charges, you can call us for help 24 hours a day and seven days a week. To set up a meeting, send us a message online or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) today.