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United States v. Ulbricht

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 9, 2014

ROSS WILLIAM ULBRICHT, a/k/a " Dread Pirate Roberts," a/k/a " DPR," a/k/a " Silk Road," , Defendant

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For Ross William Ulbricht, also known as, Dread Pirate Roberts, also known as, Silk Road, also known as, Sealed Defendant 1, also known as, DPR, Defendant: Joshua Lewis Dratel, Law Offices of Joshua L. Dratel, P.C., New York, NY.

For USA, Plaintiff: Serrin Andrew Turner, U.S. Attorney's Office, SDNY (Chambers Street), New York, NY; Timothy Turner Howard, U.S. Attorney's Office, SDNY, New York, NY.

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KATHERINE B. FORREST, United States District Judge.

On February 4, 2014, a Grand Jury sitting in the Southern District of New York returned Indictment 14 Cr. 68, charging Ross Ulbricht (" the defendant" or " Ulbricht" ) on four counts for participation in a narcotics trafficking conspiracy (Count One), a continuing criminal enterprise (" CCE" ) (Count Two), a computer hacking conspiracy (Count Three), and a money laundering conspiracy (Count Four). (Indictment, ECF No. 12.) Pending before the Court is the defendant's motion to dismiss all counts. (ECF No. 19.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES the motion in its entirety.[1]

The Government alleges that Ulbricht engaged in narcotics trafficking, computer hacking, and money laundering conspiracies bye designing, launching, and administering a website called Silk Road (" Silk

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Road" ) as an online marketplace for illicit goods and services. These allegations raise novel issues as they relate to the Internet and the defendant's role in the purported conspiracies.

A conspiracy claim is premised on an agreement between two or more people to achieve an unlawful end. The Government alleges that by designing, launching, and administering Silk Road, Ulbricht conspired with narcotics traffickers and hackers to buy and sell illegal narcotics and malicious computer software and to launder the proceeds using Bitcoin. There is no allegation that Ulbricht conspired with anyone prior to his launch of Silk Road. Rather, the allegations revolve around the numerous transactions that occurred on the site following its launch.

The Government alleges that Silk Road was designed to operate like eBay: a seller would electronically post a good or service for sale; a buyer would electronically purchase the item; the seller would then ship or otherwise provide to the buyer the purchased item; the buyer would provide feedback; and the site operator (i.e., Ulbricht) would receive a portion of the seller's revenue as a commission. Ulbricht, as the alleged site designer, made the site available only to those using Tor, software and a network that allows for anonymous, untraceable Internet browsing; he allowed payment only via Bitcoin, an anonymous and untraceable form of payment.

Following the launch of Silk Road, the site was available to sellers and buyers for transactions. Thousands of transactions allegedly occurred over the course of nearly three years -- sellers posted goods when available; buyers purchased goods when desired. As website administrator, Ulbricht may have had some direct contact with some users of the site, and none with most. This online marketplace thus allowed the alleged designer and operator (Ulbricht) to be anywhere in the world with an Internet connection (he was apprehended in California), the sellers and buyers to be anywhere, the activities to occur independently from one another on different days and at different times, and the transactions to occur anonymously.

A number of legal questions arise from conspiracy claims premised on this framework. In sum, they address whether the conduct alleged here can serve as the basis of a criminal conspiracy -- and, if so, when, how, and with whom.

Question One: Can there be a legally cognizable " agreement" between Ulbricht and one or more coconspirators to engage in narcotics trafficking, computer hacking, and money laundering by virtue of his and their conduct in relation to Silk Road? If so, what is the difference between what Ulbricht is alleged to have done and the conduct of designers and administrators of legitimate online marketplaces through which illegal transactions may nevertheless occur?

Question Two: As a matter of law, who are Ulbricht's alleged coconspirators and potential coconspirators? That is, whose " minds" can have " met" with Ulbricht's in a conspiratorial agreement? What sort of conspiratorial structure frames the allegations: one large, single conspiracy or multiple smaller ones?

Question Three: As a matter of law, when could any particular agreement have occurred between Ulbricht and his alleged coconspirators? Need each coconspirator's mind have met simultaneously with Ulbricht's? With the minds of the other coconspirators? That is, if Ulbricht launched Silk Road on Day 1, can he be said, as a matter of law, to have entered into an agreement with the user who joins on Day 300? Did Ulbricht, simply by designing

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and launching Silk Road, make an enduring showing of intent?

Question Four: As a matter of law, is it legally necessary, or factually possible, to pinpoint how the agreement between Ulbricht and his coconspirators was made? In this regard, does the law recognize a conspiratorial agreement effected by an end user interacting with computer software, or do two human minds need to be simultaneously involved at the moment of agreement?

Question Five: If Ulbricht was merely the facilitator of simple buy-sell transactions, does the " buyer-seller" rule apply, which in certain circumstances would preclude a finding of a criminal conspiracy?


The defendant also raises the following additional arguments with respect to Counts One, Two, and Three: the rule of lenity, the doctrine of constitutional avoidance, the void-for-vagueness doctrine, constitutionally defective over-breadth, and a civil immunity statute for online service providers. The Court refers to these collectively as the " Kitchen Sink" arguments. While this is a case of first impression as to the charged conduct, the fact that the alleged conduct constitutes cognizable crimes requires no legal contortion and is not surprising. These arguments do not preclude criminal charges.

With regard to Count Two, the defendant alleges that, as a matter of law, his conduct cannot constitute participation in a CCE (under the so-called " kingpin" statute). The defendant argues that the Indictment fails to allege that he had the requisite managerial authority in the conspiracy and that the Indictment fails to allege a sufficient " continuing series" of predicate violations. The Court disagrees and finds that the allegations in the Indictment are sufficient.

With regard to Count Three, the defendant contends that the allegations in the Indictment are insufficient to support the type of conduct covered by a computer hacking conspiracy. The defendant confuses the requirement for establishing the violation of the underlying offense with the requirements for establishing a conspiracy to commit the underlying offense; he finds ambiguity where there is none. The Government alleges a legally cognizable claim in Count Three.

Finally, with respect to Count Four, the defendant alleges that he cannot have engaged in money laundering because all transactions occurred through the use of Bitcoin and thus there was therefore no legally cognizable " financial transaction." The Court disagrees. Bitcoins carry value -- that is their purpose and function -- and act as a medium of exchange. Bitcoins may be exchanged for legal tender, be it U.S. dollars, Euros, or some other currency. Accordingly, this argument fails.


Rule 7(c)(1) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that an indictment " must be a plain, concise, and definite written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense charged." Fed. R. Crim. P. 7(c). It need not contain any other matter not necessary to such statement. Id. (" A count may allege that the means by which the defendant committed the offense are unknown or that the defendant committed it by one or more specified means." ).

An indictment must inform the defendant of the crime with which he has been charged. United States v. Doe, 297 F.3d 76, 87 (2d Cir. 2002). " By informing the defendant of the charges he faces, the indictment protects the defendant from double jeopardy and allows the defendant

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to prepare his defense." Id.; United States v. Dhinsa, 243 F.3d 635, 667 (2d Cir. 2001). Rule 7(c) is intended to " eliminate prolix indictments," United States v. Carrier, 672 F.2d 300, 303 (2d Cir. 1982), and " secure simplicity in procedure." United States v. Debrow, 346 U.S. 374, 376, 74 S.Ct. 113, 98 L.Ed. 92 (1953). The Second Circuit has " consistently upheld indictments that do little more than track the language of the statute charged and state the time and place (in approximate terms) of the alleged crime." United States v. Walsh, 194 F.3d 37, 44 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also United States v. Cohen, 518 F.2d 727, 733 (2d Cir. 1975).

Nevertheless, " [a] criminal defendant is entitled to an indictment that states the essential elements of the charge against him." United States v. Pirro, 212 F.3d 86, 91 (2d Cir. 2000). " [F]or an indictment to fulfill the functions of notifying the defendant of the charges against him and of assuring that he is tried on the matters considered by the grand jury, the indictment must state some fact specific enough to describe a particular criminal act, rather than a type of crime." Id. at 93.

" An indictment must be read to include facts which are necessarily implied by the specific allegations made." United States v. Stavroulakis, 952 F.2d 686, 693 (2d Cir. 1992) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). " [C]ommon sense and reason prevail over technicalities." United States v. Sabbeth, 262 F.3d 207, 218 (2d Cir. 2001) (" [A]n indictment need not be perfect." ). While an indictment must give a defendant " sufficient notice of the core of criminality to be proven against him," United States v. Pagan, 721 F.2d 24, 27 (2d Cir. 1983) (citation omitted), the " 'core of criminality' of an offense involves the essence of the crime, in general terms," and not " the particulars of how a defendant effected the crime." United States v. D'Amelio, 683 F.3d 412, 418 (2d Cir. 2012) (citation omitted).

As with all motions to dismiss an indictment, the Court accepts as true the allegations set forth in the charging instrument for purposes of determining the sufficiency of the charges. See United States v. Sampson, 371 U.S. 75, 78-79, 83 S.Ct. 173, 9 L.Ed.2d 136 (1962); United States v. Goldberg, 756 F.2d 949, 950 (2d Cir. 1985).

The Indictment here alleges that Ulbricht designed, created, operated, and owned Silk Road, " the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet." (Ind. ¶ ¶ 1-3.) Silk Road operated using Tor, software and a network that enables users to access the Internet anonymously -- it keeps users' unique identifying Internet Protocol (" IP" ) addresses obscured, preventing surveillance or tracking. All purchases occurred on Silk Road using Bitcoin, an anonymous online currency.

Silk Road allegedly functioned as designed -- tens of thousands of buyers and sellers are alleged to have entered into transactions using the site, violating numerous criminal laws. Over time, thousands of kilograms of heroin and cocaine were allegedly bought and sold, as if the purchases were occurring on eBay or any other similar website.

Count One charges that, from in or about January 2011 up to and including October 2013, the defendant engaged in a narcotics trafficking conspiracy. To wit, " the defendant . . . designed [Silk Road] to enable users across the world to buy and sell illegal drugs and other illicit goods and services anonymously and outside the reach of law enforcement." (Ind. ¶ 1.) The defendant allegedly " controlled all aspects of Silk Road, with the assistance of various

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paid employees whom he managed and supervised." (Ind. ¶ 3.) " It was part and object of the conspiracy" that the defendant and others " would and did deliver, distribute, and dispense controlled substances by means of the Internet" and " did aid and abet such activity" in violation of the law. (Ind. ¶ 7.) The controlled substances allegedly included heroin, cocaine, and lysergic acid diethylamide (" LSD" ). (Ind. ¶ 9.) The defendant allegedly " reaped commissions worth tens of millions of dollars, generated from the illicit sales conducted through the site." (Ind. ¶ 3.) According to the Indictment, the defendant " pursued violent means, including soliciting the murder-for-hire of several individuals he believed posed a threat to that enterprise." (Ind. ¶ 4.)

Count Two depends on the conduct in Count One. Count Two alleges that Ulbricht's conduct amounted, over time, to his position as a " kingpin" in a continuing criminal enterprise (again, " CCE" ). (Ind. ¶ 12.) Ulbricht is alleged to have engaged in a " continuing series of violations" in concert " with at least five other persons with respect to whom Ulbricht occupied a position of organizer, a supervisory position, and a position of management, and from which . . . Ulbricht obtained substantial income and resources." (Id.)

Count Three charges that Ulbricht also designed Silk Road as " a platform for the purchase and sale of malicious software designed for computer hacking, such as password stealers, keyloggers, and remote access tools." (Ind. ¶ 14.) " While in operation, the Silk Road website regularly offered hundreds of listings for such products." (Id.) The object of this conspiracy was to " intentionally access computers without authorization, and thereby [to] obtain information from protected computers, for purposes of commercial advantage and financial gain." (Ind. ¶ 16.)

Count Four alleges that Ulbricht " designed Silk Road to include a Bitcoin-based payment system that served to facilitate the illegal commerce conducted on the site, including by concealing the identities and locations of the users transmitting and receiving funds through the site." (Ind. ¶ 18.) " [K]nowing that the property involved in certain financial transactions represented proceeds of some form of unlawful activity," Ulbricht and others would and did conduct financial transactions with the proceeds of specified unlawful activity, " knowing that the transactions were designed . . . to conceal and disguise the nature, the location, the source, the ownership and the control of the proceeds." (Ind. ¶ 21.)


A. Elements of a Conspiracy

" The essence of the crime of conspiracy . . . is the agreement to commit one or more unlawful acts." United States v. Praddy, 725 F.3d 147, 153 (2d Cir. 2013) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted); see also Iannelli v. United States, 420 U.S. 770, 777, 95 S.Ct. 1284, 43 L.Ed.2d 616 (1975) (" Conspiracy is an inchoate offense, the essence of which is an agreement to commit an unlawful act." ); United States v. Falcone, 311 U.S. 205, 210, 61 S.Ct. 204, 85 L.Ed. 128 (1940); United States v. Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp., 871 F.2d 1181, 1191 (2d Cir. 1989) (" The gist of conspiracy is, of course, agreement." ); United States v. Rosenblatt, 554 F.2d 36, 38 (2d Cir. 1977). Put differently, a conspiracy is the " 'combination of minds for an unlawful purpose.'" Smith v. United States, __ U.S. __, 133 S.Ct. 714, 719, 184 L.Ed.2d 570 (2013) (quoting United States v. Hirsch, 100 U.S. 33, 34, 25 L.Ed. 539

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1. Agreement

A meeting of the minds is required in order for there to be an agreement. Krulewitch v. United States, 336 U.S. 440, 447-48, 69 S.Ct. 716, 93 L.Ed. 790 (1949) (Jackson, J. concurring); Rosenblatt, 554 F.2d at 38. Two people have to engage in the " act of agreeing" in order for this requirement to be met. Rosenblatt, 554 F.2d at 38 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The conspirators must agree to the object, or unlawful end, of the conspiracy. Id. While the coconspirators need not agree to every detail, they must agree to the " essential nature" of the plan. Blumenthal v. United States, 332 U.S. 539, 557, 68 S.Ct. 248, 92 L.Ed. 154 (1947); Praddy, 725 F.3d at 153 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); United States v. Geibel, 369 F.3d 682, 689 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); Rosenblatt, 554 F.2d at 38.[3]

" It is not necessary to prove that the defendant expressly agreed with other conspirators on a course of action; it is enough, rather, to show that the parties had a tacit understanding to carry out the prohibited conduct." Anderson, 747 F.3d at 61 (internal quotation marks, alteration, and citation omitted). However, " a defendant's mere presence at the scene of a crime, his general knowledge of criminal activity, or his simple association with others engaged in a crime are not, in themselves, sufficient to prove the defendant's criminal liability for conspiracy." Id. (citations omitted).

2. Object of the Conspiracy

To be convicted of a conspiracy, a defendant must know what " 'kind of criminal conduct was in fact contemplated.'" Rosenblatt, 554 F.2d at 38 (quoting United States v. Gallishaw, 428 F.2d 760, 763 n.1 (2d Cir. 1970)). That is, the defendant has to know what the " object" of the conspiracy he joined was. A " general agreement to engage in unspecified criminal conduct is insufficient to identify the essential nature of the conspiratorial plan." Rosenblatt, 554 F.2d at 39. Indeed, " [t]he government must prove that the defendant agreed to commit a particular offense and not merely a vague agreement to do something wrong." United States v. Salameh, 152 F.3d 88, 151 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis in original). That said, " [t]he government need not show that the defendant knew all of the details of the conspiracy, so long as he knew its general nature and extent." United States v. Huezo, 546 F.3d 174, 180 (2d Cir. 2008) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).[4]

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3. Participation

The crime of conspiracy requires that a defendant both know the object of the crime and that he knowingly and intentionally join the conspiracy. United States v. Torres, 604 F.3d 58, 66 (2d Cir. 2010). The requisite knowledge can be proven through circumstantial evidence. Id.

The quantum of proof necessary at trial to sustain a finding of knowledge varies. " A defendant's knowing and willing participation in a conspiracy may be inferred from, for example, [his] presence at critical stages of the conspiracy that could not be explained by happenstance, . . . a lack of surprise when discussing the conspiracy with others, . . . [or] evidence that the defendant participated in conversations directly related to the substance of the conspiracy; possessed items important to the conspiracy; or received or expected to receive a share of the profits from the conspiracy." United States v. Aleskerova, 300 F.3d 286, 293 (2d Cir. 2002) (citations omitted). Indeed, under the appropriate circumstances, " [a] defendant's participation in a single transaction can suffice to sustain a ...

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