SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court has thrown out evidence against a Washington state man charged with possession of child pornography, saying his conviction revealed that naval intelligence agents were improperly peering into both civilian and military computers.
In a strongly worded decision made available electronically on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the case uncovered an egregious overstepping of bounds by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that “amounts to the military acting as a national police force to investigate civilian law.”
Court documents show the NCIS launched an investigation in 2010 for online criminal activity by anyone in Washington state, whether connected with the military or not, and found child pornography on a machine belonging to a civilian.
The evidence collected by NCIS special agent Steve Logan from a federal office in Georgia was turned over to civilian law enforcement, and Michael Dreyer of Algona was later convicted of possessing child porn and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
“Agent Logan had no idea whether the computers searched belonged to someone with any affiliation with the military at all,” the 9th Circuit ruling said. “Instead, it was his ‘standard practice to monitor all computers in a geographic area,’ here, every computer in the state of Washington.”
The case comes during a national debate over privacy rights and the scope of U.S. government surveillance programs since details of data-gathering were leaked last year by former government contractor Edward Snowden.
The government argued the military’s computer searches in Washington state were proper and legal, and said protocol was to hand over evidence collected to civilian law enforcement.
The appeals court dismissed that argument, saying the surveillance violated the Posse Comitatus Act that prohibits military personnel from participating in civilian law enforcement activities.
“To accept (the government‘s) position would mean that NCIS agents could, for example, routinely stop suspected drunk drivers in downtown Seattle on the off-chance that a driver is a member of the military,” the ruling said.
The panel’s ruling, filed last week, will send Dreyer’s case back to the district court with an order to exclude the NCIS evidence. NCIS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jenny Durkan, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, could ask the case be heard by the entire court of appeals.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney