One-page Overview

Ross’s case encompasses a multitude of issues that will set precedent for our digital future. It is also a revealing story of how the U.S. government prosecutes people, and tramples on privacy and constitutional protections in the process.

Silk Road was an e-commerce website created to protect user privacy. Using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin on the Tor browser, people anonymously exchanged a variety of goods, both legal and illegal, including drugs (most often small amounts of cannabis).

A few months after its launch, Senator Chuck Schumer called for a federal investigation into Silk Road, which was permeated by the schemes of corrupt federal agents, and by a power struggle between competing law enforcement agencies.

The government violated Ross’s Fourth Amendment privacy rights before, during, and after his arrest, and repeatedly lied to the court about their investigation. The prosecutors, led by Preetinder Bharara—who served as Schumer’s Chief Counsel for five years—used uncharged, unproven allegations of arranging murders that never actually occurred to deny Ross bail, smear him in the media, prejudice his jurors and justify the double life sentence he ultimately received. Ross was prosecuted as a drug kingpin, not for selling drugs but for creating a platform where others did, despite laws protecting providers from liability for their users’ content.

At trial, all mention of the corruption was hidden from the jury, as well as evidence that multiple people operated the “DPR” accounts. After trial, it was discovered that someone using the DPR account logged into the Silk Road forum seven weeks after Ross was imprisoned. It was also later discovered that evidence had been tampered with before trial, ostensibly by a corrupt government agent.

Ross’s lawyers were deprived of essential material at key points in the proceedings, prevented from calling expert witnesses, and blocked from cross-examining government witnesses. With the defense eviscerated, the government’s unreliable digital evidence appeared convincing enough to the jury, and Ross was convicted on all counts.

At sentencing, Judge Katherine Forrest—who was recommended for the bench by Schumer—used what she perceived were Ross’s philosophical beliefs, as well as crimes he was never charged with, to enhance a draconian sentence. She rejected independent academic studies showing that Silk Road reduced harm in the drug trade and that excessive sentences do not deter crime. She also rejected 100 letters [PDF] written by people who know Ross, attesting to his fine character and entreating her to give him the mandatory minimum of 20 years. Instead, she sentenced Ross to double life without parole + 40 years. This was despite other Silk Road defendants with similar charges receiving by far less time.

Ross’s appeals were denied. He has now petitioned the Supreme Court with far-reaching constitutional questions regarding digital privacy and our right to a jury trial.

Ross is currently imprisoned in a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.