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In Lengthy Opinion, Second Circuit Affirms “Silk Road” Conviction and Life Sentence

On May 31, 2017, the Second Circuit issued its long-awaited decision in the “Silk Road” case, United States v. Ulbricht, (15-1815-cr) (2nd Cir. May 31, 2017) (Newman, Lynch, Droney).  The panel affirmed Ulbricht’s conviction and sentence of life imprisonment, identifying no reversible error.  Notwithstanding the many amici submissions challenging the district court’s unreasonableness in imposing a life sentence, the Court disagreed with those contentions and explained that it was required to be deferential to the district court.  Judge Lynch, who is a scholar in the area of sentencing, reasoned that “[a]t his point in our history . . . the democratically-elected representatives of the people have opted for a policy of prohibition, backed by severe punishment.”  Id. at 120 (emphasis added).

The “Silk Road” case received much attention and media coverage before and during trial.  Silk Road was an online, anonymous “black” marketplace in which people could purchase and sell illegal drugs.  During its operation, Silk Road sold approximately $183 million worth of illegal drugs.  Ulbricht, alleged to be the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the pseudonymous Silk Road creator, earned millions of dollars in profits from commissioned purchases through the online marketplace.  After a lengthy investigation by the government—during which time two undercover DEA agents investigating Silk Road were caught using the marketplace for their own personal gain—the government indicted Ulbricht in the Southern District of New York.  In February 2015, Ulbricht contested the charges during a three-week trial, and a jury convicted Ulbricht of all seven counts in the Indictment, including drug trafficking, money laundering, and other crimes, committed through Silk Road. 

Upon his conviction, the government requested that the district court impose a sentence substantially above the twenty-year mandatory minimum.  Although Ulbricht submitted a sentencing memorandum that attached 97 letters from family and friends on his behalf, the United States Probation Office recommended a life sentence, and the district court followed the recommendation on May 29, 2015.  On appeal, Ulbricht challenged his sentence and a host of alleged pretrial and trial errors, including issues relating to the Fourth Amendment (the validity of trap and trace orders and multiple search warrants) and the admission and preclusion of certain testimony.  Two years after his sentencing, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s rulings, including the life sentence, a conclusion that the Court did not “reach . . . lightly.”  Id. at 138.  

The Court’s decision is 139 pages long, and we will post a longer discussion on the opinion in the coming days.  Please check back soon for more updates.

-By Cassye Cole and Harry Sandick