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United States v. Carroll

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

April 5, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 3:15-cr-00012-TCB-RGV-1

          Before WILSON and DUBINA, Circuit Judges, and GOLDBERG, [*] Judge.


         This case involves the dissemination of child pornography through a peer-to-peer file sharing program called Ares. A jury convicted appellant Charles Carroll of knowingly possessing and distributing hundreds of images and videos depicting the sexual exploitation of minors, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(4)(B), (a)(2), some of whom were less than twelve years old. The district court applied five Guidelines enhancements and sentenced Carroll to 150 months in prison.

         This appeal requires us to determine whether a lawful warrant supported the search of Carroll's home, whether the government put forth sufficient evidence to sustain his convictions, and whether the district court properly enhanced his sentence. Upon thorough review of the record and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm in part, but we reverse Carroll's distribution conviction because the government failed to put forth any evidence that Carroll knew downloaded files were automatically placed into a shared folder accessible to the Ares peer-to-peer network.


         On October 22, 2014, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) seized two laptops and an external hard drive from Carroll's Newnan, Georgia home. Forensic analysis later revealed that one of the laptops, a Dell, held 314 images and 65 videos of child pornography in its "unallocated space"-a place where deleted files can still be retrieved using special software. Those files were downloaded from the peer-to-peer file sharing program Ares over the course of the previous eleven months. Some of the files had been downloaded and deleted, along with the Ares program itself, just days before the laptop's seizure.

         Peer-to-peer networks like Ares are "so called because users' computers communicate directly with each other, not through central servers." Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913, 919-20, 125 S.Ct. 2764, 2770 (2005). This decentralized system allows users to search for files across the peer-to-peer network and then to download files directly from the computers of other users. Ares, like many peer-to-peer programs before it, [1] is available for free over the internet and is commonly used to share music and videos. When downloaded, Ares sets up a shared folder on the computer where, by default, it automatically places all subsequent downloads. Once a file is placed in the shared folder, it is immediately available for further dissemination.

         Unless an Ares user changes the default settings or deliberately moves files out of the shared folder, downloaded files will remain freely accessible to anyone else on the Ares network-including the GBI Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. About a month before the GBI searched Carroll's home, an agent tapped into the Ares network and discovered twenty-two "files of interest"[2] that were being shared from Carroll's IP address. Disguised as an Ares peer, the agent downloaded two videos directly from Carroll's computer, both of which contained child pornography. After tracing the IP address to Carroll's internet service account registered to his home in Newnan, the GBI sought out and received a warrant from the Georgia Superior Court, which it executed at Carroll's home on the morning of October 22.

         Eight months later, a federal grand jury charged Carroll with one count of knowingly distributing a visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2), (b)(1), and one count of knowingly possessing a visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B), (b)(2). Carroll filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from his home, which the district court denied. A jury found Carroll guilty on both counts and made a special finding that Carroll possessed materials involving the sexual exploitation of a minor under the age of twelve. At sentencing, the district court applied five Guidelines enhancements, finding that: (1) the images depicted minors under twelve; (2) the images portrayed sadistic or masochistic conduct or violence; (3) the offense involved 600 or more images; (4) the offense involved use of a computer service; and (5) Carroll's testimony at trial obstructed justice. This produced a guideline range of 210 to 262 months; the district court sentenced Carroll to 150 months' imprisonment.


         We review de novo whether a search warrant is supported by probable cause, accepting the factual findings of the district court unless clearly erroneous. United States v. Brundidge, 170 F.3d 1350, 1352 (11th Cir. 1999) (per curiam). Likewise, we review de novo whether a warrant lacked the particularity required by the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Bradley, 644 F.3d 1213, 1258-59 (11th Cir. 2011). "We review the sufficiency of evidence to support a conviction de novo, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and drawing all reasonable inferences and credibility choices in favor of the jury's verdict." United States v. Taylor, 480 F.3d 1025, 1026 (11th Cir. 2007).

         We review the district court's application of the Guidelines de novo and its findings of fact for clear error. United States v. Smith, 231 F.3d 800, 806 (11th Cir. 2000). Because Carroll argues for the first time on appeal that the district court erred in applying a sentencing enhancement for possession of more than 600 images involving the sexual exploitation of a minor, U.S.S.G. § 2G2.2(b)(7), we will review the application of that enhancement for plain error. United States v. Rodriguez, 398 F.3d 1291, 1298 (11th Cir. 2005). Plain error review requires a showing that (1) there was an error; (2) it was plain; (3) it affected substantial rights; and (4) it seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Id.


         Our discussion is divided into three parts. First, we address whether the warrant authorizing the search of Carroll's home met the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. Next, we consider the sufficiency of the evidence to support his possession ...

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