Child Pornography Possession – Common Legal Questions Answered

Laws against child pornography are very stringent both at state and federal levels. Depending on the facts of the case, possession of child pornography can result in a lengthy prison sentence and life-long damage to your personal and professional life.If you are accused of possession or distribution of child pornography you need a lawyer that specializes in such cases. Jan Olson, a highly experienced sex crime defense lawyer, understands the steps it takes to investigate the matter thoroughly and build an effective defense. He answers common questions regarding child pornography cases in the interview below.

What are ways people accused of possessing child pornography are often initially caught?

The classic way people are arrested possession-child-pornographyfor possession of child pornography is they store the images in a cloud-computing storage service, like a Google cloud. Every cloud-based service has fine print in their terms of service that says something to the effect of “we will not accept child pornography images”. When someone foolishly stores illegal images in a cloud, there is the description of the image that alerts the service. If the cloud-based service suspects the image to be child pornography, they turn the user over to law enforcement. A company like Google is not a governmental agency, they’re free to do that when users have agreed to their terms of service.

I have also had clients turned in by Interpol, which is a European police service that monitors trading files and other activity. Europe has slightly different privacy laws than the United States. In those cases, Interpol connected with Seattle police saying, “Hey, somebody with this IP address in your jurisdiction is trading files involving child pornography.” That’s very common.

The third most common way that a person is arrested or accused is when a national child exploitation agency gets alerted by civilians. When they get reports of suspicious activity, which can come from a concerned spouse, teacher or counselor, they turn those reports over to the FBI or to local law enforcement.

When someone accused of possessing child pornography has their computer confiscated by law enforcement, how long does it typically take for the files to be investigated?

The process can take a great deal of time depending upon who is in charge of the investigation as well as how willing a suspect is to having his or her computer analyzed. Some of those accused of possession of child pornography often feel that any questionable images they possess are thoroughly hidden within some complex filing system they have created. Others think that simply deleting their files will make it impossible for authorities to find them. Both mindsets are very wrong.

For example, I’ve had clients be turned in by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or Interpol, and, because they created a very elaborate file system, they think their computer defenses are impenetrable, so they do not cooperate with authorities for months. That computer goes off to a state lab where it will sit and work its way up the line with a hundred cases in front of them. It takes time, but every piece of electronics submitted will get very thoroughly evaluated. I’ve have clients be under investigation for two and a half years until the files that my client thought were hidden were finally detected in a forensic search of their system.

On the other hand, I’ve had clients admit to the presence of those images because they knew that they would be found.  Their admissions dramatically reduces the length of time and anguish of an investigation, and sometimes that openness to examination has helped them a great deal when facing their prosecutor and judge.

The bottom line is if those images exist on a computer, even if the person tried to delete them, most likely they will be discovered, no matter how long it takes the authorities.

Is it correct that those found guilty often face special punishments, such as not being allowed to use the Internet?

Yes. A problem that I see for many of my clients, especially those working in any field of technology, is that they are ordered to not be around a computer. That punishment essentially makes them unemployable. It will show up on every criminal background check. They will have to disclose their convictions on every future written application as well. Who is going to take the chance of having someone with such a record on their staff?

Recently, I’ve seen judges recognize that you can indeed be a tech person and not be on the internet, but still use a computer. Although there are many areas of work where it is essential to use the Internet, particularly in the field of sales, I’ve had some judges deny a prosecutor’s request that this individual cannot be on a computer. Instead, judges can require the person to only use computers that have special applications, like Covenant Eyes, that monitors a person’s web activity and prevents them from going on pornographic sites. That approach is something that has come into play in the last couple of years, and a good defense attorney can often help judges see its effectiveness.

What types of prison sentences are given to those found guilty of possessing child pornography?

It can vary a great deal by jurisdiction. There are some guidance in Seattle where prosecutors will say, “If the person has 20 images, you charge them with one count. If they have 50 images, you charge them with two counts.” That determination all depends upon the prosecutor’s office. In the federal system, the number of images not only effects the sentencing guidelines in terms how many counts the person gets charged with, but how much time under the guidelines they may actually be facing. So, the same crime can be seen very differently in a different jurisdiction.

It is not normal, at least in the State of Washington State, that anyone who gets charged with possession of child pornography face more than three or four years of prison time, although there are notable exceptions. First-time offenders and those who cooperate with authorities early in their investigation can see a diminished prison sentence. So, it’s a discretionary call that’s made by the individual prosecutor.

In King County, the prosecutor’s office may be influenced because the accused sought treatment. They agreed to turn in their computers. Also, there can be big differences between sometimes urban jurisdictions that see this sort of crime often and rural jurisdictions where it occur infrequently. Those rural jurisdictions may need convincing that the individual shouldn’t be charged with one count, or 20 counts. That is a critical distinction because if you get charged with more than one count under current Washington guidelines, you’re facing prison.

It is extremely important that you contact an experienced attorney the moment that you hear of an investigation.

If you have a criminal matter and would like to consult with an experienced lawyer, contact Jan Olson at Ellis, Li & McKinstry, PLLC.

You can reach Mr. Olson by calling (206) 682-0565 or by e-mail at: