PlayPen Member Fought the FBIâs Illegal Warrant and Still Got 7 Years for Child Pornography
On March 26, 2016, Dennis Patrick Meehan Hughes pleaded guilty to several child pornography charges. He was a pediatric oncologist prior to the FBIâs Operation Pacifier that decimated PlayPen, a darknet CP website. Several months after hearing the former oncologistâs guilty plea, U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks Jr. sentenced Hughes to spend seven years in a federal institution. The court, during the Operation Pacifier case, noted the âhorrific nature of the crimes and that they facilitated the abuse of children.â
Hughes worked at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center until June 5, 2015, when law enforcement swarmed his residence and handcuffed him. The oncologist, notably a pediatric one, made his way onto an FBI list of internet pedophiles. The FBI investigation involved the hacking of 8,000 computers worldwide, including several computers associated with the case. A magistrate judge from Virginia gave the FBI a warrantâone that allowed them to deploy controversial malware.
The order granted the FBI the ability to implement a piece of malware called a Network Investigative Technique or NIT for short. The code, once activated, effectively deanonymized users of Tor. Initially, as the FBI led both courts and the public to believe, the NIT warrant outlined a clear investigative scope. Recently released documents from United States District Court for the Western District of Washington vs. David Tippens, Gerald Lessan, and Bruce Lorenteâthree men in the FBIâs indictmentârevealed otherwise.
Colin Fieman, Office of the Public Defender, during the hearing stated the following upon hearing the full extent of the FBIâs NIT warrant:
I do want to touch about that. We never have, in our nation’s history as far as I can tell, seen an order so utterly sweeping. 100,000 potential targets. Something like 8700 IP addresses captured. At least 1152 open investigations. Moreover, now oddly enough only, about 214 arrests. Moreover, I will be touching on that later. However, what is remarkable on top of this is also, of course, the global aspect of it. It is global not only regarding the jurisdictional Rule 41 issues we are going to be talking about but worldwide regarding what the FBI did regarding disseminating the child pornography (Joseph Cox, via Motherboard, fetched December 10, 2016).
Hughes pleaded guilty, in March, to receiving child pornography with the intention to view along with possession of said material, according to announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson. His guilty plea occurred before the Tippens, Lessan, and Lorente case wherein the court released new information on the NIT warrant. Following the publication of the illegally obtained warrant, Hughes filed a plea withdrawal.
The defendantâs counsel explained the situation to US Attorney Kenneth Magidson in the motion:
Rather than asserting actual innocence, Hughes argues âlegal innocence,â which he describes as meaning that the government cannot prove its case through competent legally-obtained evidence; that the âonly evidence linking [him] to the charges against him flows from the Virginia magistrateâs warrant, which was invalid.â Hughesâ argument is that based on recent court decisions in Massachusetts on April 20, 2016, and in Oklahoma on April 25, 2016, finding the Virginia magistrate judgeâs warrant is invalid and in violation Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(b)(2) and (b)(4) and that âthe suppression issue is likely dispositive in this caseâ (Hughes Plea Withdrawal, doc. 48).
Despite the battle between Hughes and the court, the evidence against him was too damning. Officers discovered nearly 400 videos and 2,693 explicit photos. Additionally, at his March hearing, Hughes admitted to the possession of similar material on the computers at his workplace: the cancer treatment center. Testimonies against Hughes, by unnamed individuals, reported that he had frequent and routine access to children outside his work environment. The doctor had minor children of his own, was active in his church, and was an assistant coach of a youth soccer team. An incident while he coached, a testimony explained, was the entirety of Hughesâs extra-curricular involvement with children.
Judge Hanks Jr. sentenced Hughes to serve seven years in prison, followed by ten years of supervised release and registration as a sex offender. The judge imposed other undisclosed restrictions that would prevent Hughes from contact with children or internet usage.