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6 months for abuser caught in FBI’s Playpen snare

FBI’s Playpen operation is an investigation into child abuse imagery being shared via Tor. So, why such a lenient sentence?

On Tuesday, one of more than 200 suspects being prosecuted nationwide in cases stemming from the FBI’s Playpen operation – an investigation into child abuse imagery being shared via Tor – was sentenced to six months in prison.

Why such a lenient sentence?

His defense attorney says it’s because he’s a good man. David Tippens, convicted on one count of possession of child abuse imagery, is a Seattle-area veteran who served in the US Army as a combat engineer, earning a Bronze Star.

According to what Tippens’ federal public defender, Colin Fieman, told Ars Technica, the lenient sentence was a reflection of how impressed the court was with his client’s military service and cooperation during his arrest:

The Government asked for 48 months in prison but the Court was impressed with Mr. Tippens’ long and distinguished service in the Army, including combat duty in Iraq; his cooperation with the police at the time of his arrest and perfect compliance with pre-trial supervision; and the fact that he had a pornography addiction related to PTSD that would be addressed through continuing counseling.

But prosecutors most certainly didn’t sound sympathetic to Tippens in the sentencing memorandum filed in May. The memorandum was filled with stomach-churning details:

By his own admission, he spent years searching for and collecting images and videos of children being raped and tortured so he could gratify his sexual desire. His conduct is reprehensible, and his untreated sexual deviancy makes him a danger.

Playpen was a dark web site dedicated to child sex abuse, and Tippens was only one of hundreds of suspects arrested for visiting it. After finding Playpen’s original operator, the FBI infamously took over and ran the site for 13 days, from February 20 to March 4 2014. It served up illegal child abuse imagery, planting a so-called network investigative technique (NIT) – what’s also known as police malware – onto the computers of those who visited Playpen.

The NIT forced more than 8,000 computers to cough up their IP addresses, MAC addresses; open ports; lists of running programs; operating system types, versions and serial numbers; preferred browsers and versions; registered owners and registered company names; current logged-in user names; and their last-visited URL.

It was a massive haul of evidence, and it led to the arrests of nearly 900 people worldwide.

The question of whether the NIT warrant was constitutional, however, is still playing out.

In a closely watched, potentially pivotal case, a judge earlier this month said that the warrant was, in fact, unconstitutional. He recommended that reams of evidence collected under the warrant be considered inadmissible in hundreds of Playpen criminal cases.

That’s not the only case in which evidence has been tossed. Back in May 2016, a US federal judge excluded all evidence in a Playpen case.

But there are other cases in which the NIT warrant has been upheld. One of the more recent set of convictions: in October, two Playpen members and producers of abuse imagery were sentenced, one to 360 months and a lifetime of supervised release, the other to 210 months and 15 years of supervised release.

So, again, why the lenient sentence for Tippens?

It’s not that evidence was deemed inadmissible because of an unconstitutional warrant. Rather, the evidence didn’t even get that far in Tippens’ case.

The government, which admitted that it was loath to reveal classified material (even though the trial exhibits have been released on WikiLeaks), dropped count No. 1 (receipt of child pornography) and No. 3 (transportation of child pornography).

Tippens is free on bond pending appeal of his conviction on possession of child abuse imagery. Tippens’ lawyer, Fieman, told Ars that he’s looking forward to the 9th Circuit’s review of what he called “the FBI’s ill-conceived Operation Pacifier and all of the legal issues that surround it.”


In my opinion there’s much to admire in the USA’s extroverted respect for the sacrifice its service people make but this… this is too much.


Well, as the article points out, that was just his attorney sounding off – the factors listed may well have contributed to a lenient sentence, but there is no suggestion that the sentence was low specifically, or even mainly, because the US has “extroverted respect” for veterans.

Like the UK, the US has an adversarial legal system, so you will always have defenders trumpeting how their clients are great guys and how their previous life proves it, and the prosecution espousing precisely the opposite.

Although six months indeed sounds like a light sentence in a case like this, many jurisdictions – the UK is a good example – do take into consideration factors such as co-operation with police and a guilty plea. (The defendant did plead guilty, which the article doesn’t mention. Many courts understandably treat this as “good from bad”, on the grounds that the criminal is not trying to pretend it never happened or to fly in the face of reality.)

So you might be ascribing too much relevance to the military connection (and US attitudes), and not enough to the other factors that are said to have influenced the court.


slightly related (though I don’t know where this defense attorney stands with it):

Recent convention is trying to drop the “D” from PTSD, arguing that the moniker “disorder” is primarily rooted in a need to categorize and label prioritized over actual treatment. Also the word implies a physical medical defect as opposed to a natural psychological response to traumatic situations. There are other reasons, but I understand those to be the main ones.

I’ve spoken to a few recipients of the Medal of Honor who support this and most recently one who’s worked extensively campaigning in that endeavor. He was pretty passionate about it and urged everyone to help spread the word.

So I guess I am.


Thanks for spreading the word on that, Bryan. This is the first I’ve heard of dropping the “disorder” from PTSD, and the rationale for doing so certainly makes sense. Consider that adopted into my usage, and I’ll do what I can to spread the word myself. Thanks again.


:,) Thanks Lisa. His name is Ty Carter; I’ll let him know we’re helping further the cause. We spoke only briefly, but he’s a good guy.
Hope to not get overly solicitous in this forum, but there’s a four minute CNN video (2013/07) that’s easy to find, tells his MoH story. Another three-minute CNN vid (2013/08) explains his efforts to remove the “disorder” stigma from PTS.


“much to admire”
Thanks Mark. It’s highly reassuring that we still have a couple externally-perceptible good points, our jingoist brethren being as boisterous as they are.

FWIW I agree on the leniency here. It’ll take a bit longer than six months for a kid to get over a photo shoot like that.


FWIW, another thing I didn’t mention is that there’s no minimum sentence for the crime of which Tippens was found guilty.


Putting aside whether the man did anything wrong or not, I do not agree with the conviction on possession of child abuse imagery. FBI found out about this man because of their ILLEGAL investigation, thus if it was deemed to be illegal shouldn’t all evidence obtained by illegal means be thrown away? Including the fact that he has pornography on his PC.


the 8th circuit has decided that the fbi search was unconstitutional, but that the fbi didnt actually mean to break the law, so all the evidence collected can be used. he also chided them for becoming child porn distributors, but didnt even give them a slap on the wrist.
this is very disturbing. the judge and the appelate courts are basically saying that the fbi can commit crime to catch criminals.


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