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In Silk Road appeal, judges question 'social utility' of sentence

A little more than two years ago, a young man with the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts" was convicted of running the dark web drug marketplace known as the Silk Road. It was considered a major coup for the government, although it is unclear whether shutting down the Silk Road was effective at curtailing the sale of illicit substances online. "Roberts" was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole, however, which some observers saw as unusually harsh considering the largely nonviolent nature of the crimes.

The young man appealed his conviction and sentence to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. He made a number of claims, including a complaint that the government had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by performing unreasonable surveillance on him. The appellate court disagreed.

He also claimed that his case was tainted by corruption. In fact, two federal agents have been convicted of crimes related to the case. One, a Secret Service agent, stole bitcoin from the Silk Road -- hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth. The other, a DEA agent, sold Roberts information pertaining to the investigation and also tried to extort him.

Unfortunately, while the illegal actions were proven in a court of law, they don't prove the Dread Pirate was framed. Unlike in another recent case we discussed on this blog, proof that federal agents had acted illegally was not enough to suggest Roberts' innocence. The court upheld his conviction.

Second Circuit: Are our drug sentencing policies 'tragic mistakes'?

The appellate court recognized that Congress has chosen to prohibit the use and sale of drugs and to back that prohibition by severe punishment. However, the three-judge panel implied that policy may be problematic.

The ruling points out that reasonable people do disagree about the societal costs and benefits of harsh drug sentences or even prohibition. "It is very possible," reads the opinion, "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."

The trial judge had questioned the harsh sentence, saying that victim impact statements by family members of overdose victims had "put an extraordinary thumb on the scale that shouldn't' be there." The appeals court disagreed and upheld the life sentence without parole.

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