- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Standing before a federal judge on Monday, a Virginia man apologized for using a secret website to download images of naked children and to discuss his urges to touch them.

Edward Joseph Matish III told the judge he knows children in the photos are now “haunted by the fact these images continue to circulate.”

Matish, 25, was then sentenced to more than three years in prison. His courtroom plea was a marked turnaround from last year, when he fought the case for several months based on a claim that the FBI violated his right to privacy when it hacked into his computer.

The Williamsburg man is among more than 200 people nationwide arrested in the FBI’s sting, known as Operation Pacifier.

The FBI had temporarily taken over Playpen, a child porn site that’s hidden from Google and allows its users to be anonymous. Agents then hacked into the computers of users who downloaded images.

Besides people who accessed child porn, the sting led to the arrest of 48 alleged “hands-on abusers” and the identification or rescue of at least 49 children, former Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell wrote on the Justice Department’s website in November.

But the wave of prosecutions has elicited legal challenges across the country.

Defense attorneys have argued that the one warrant used by the FBI was too broad to support a reasonable search of someone’s computer. Another argument is that the FBI went beyond the scope of the warrant, which was issued in Virginia, into other jurisdictions. In some courts, judges have tossed key evidence.

But other judges have let the cases move forward, including the judge on the Matish case in Norfolk. U.S. District Judge Henry C. Morgan Jr. ruled in June that the FBI didn’t a need a warrant to search his computer. He said there is less of an expectation of privacy when it comes to child porn investigations.

In the wake of the sting, some experts say the courts will ultimately reshape the law for computer search and seizure rules for any crime.

“I remain concerned that the decisions will affect law enforcement’s ability to hack for years going forward in a way that is significantly detrimental to everyone’s rights,” Mark Rumold, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Monday.

Matish pleaded guilty in October after his attempts to fight the case faltered. At his sentencing on Monday, assistant U.S. Attorney Kaitlin Gratton said Matish downloaded images of children who were naked on the beach or in sexual situations. Some were infants.

Gratton said Matish also discussed his desires to touch children in a chat room on the Playpen site, saying the site helped him control his urges.

But, she said, Matish encouraged others like him to “(l)eave the touching to the brave souls willing to risk everything for our relief.”

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