Shining A Light On Darknet Drug Markets: How People Get Caught And Possible Defenses

There are parts of the internet that aren't going to come up in a Google search and don't get indexed by other traditional search engines. Among these "darknet" sites are some online markets that exist solely to connect the sellers and buyers of illicit goods together—and drugs are an important part of those markets. However, this hidden part of the internet is facing intense scrutiny from law enforcement these days—and users run more of a chance of being caught than they probably realize. Learn more about how people using the darknet to sell (or buy) drugs get caught and what possible defenses are available.

How do people get caught if the darknet is hidden?

While websites are hidden and users rely on screen names and layers of encryption to try to hide their identities, federal agents are getting better at searching through the internet and they find out about hidden websites the same way that dealers and buyers do: word of mouth.

For example, the well-publicized capture and arrest of Ross Ulbricht, who went by the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts," was set into motion after agents locked onto a very early post that mentioned the online drug market he managed, known as the Silk Road. Ulbricht's story holds lessons for just about anyone because it essentially shows that just about everyone starts out unaware how to really protect themselves from detection. By the time users of the darknet learn to cover their tracks, they've already left a pretty clear trail for agents to follow.

Agents use other methods, naturally, to try to track down people who are using the darknet to facilitate their drug trade: 

  • They pose as users, buyers, and low-level distributors.
  • They track activity in commonly known drug-oriented internet forums.
  • They use subpoenas to find out the identities of people posting in forums about darknet sites.
  • They track IP (internet protocol) IDs and trace them back to their owners.
  • They track the sale and exchange of bitcoins, a type of online currency that's heavily used in internet drug sales, looking for suspiciously large or frequent transactions.

Naturally, the investigations eventually move off the web and into regular life, at which point agents will use drug dogs and undercover agents to track down shipments of drugs and attempt to make controlled deliveries of them in order to cast a wider net over the people involved. For every package delivered, they can increase they can add on more charges.

What types of defenses are available to someone caught buying or selling drugs online?

The types of defenses available vary according to an individual's circumstances and the specific evidence against him or her. However, there are some common defenses that come up fairly regularly:

  • Illegal search and seizure—if police abused their discretion when collecting evidence, the evidence can sometimes be kept out of court, which can weaken or destroy a case.
  • Unwitting possession—if the person receiving a drug shipment wasn't aware of the contents in advance, they can't be found guilty of a crime involving those drugs.
  • Lack of possession—if the drug package went to an address where there were several people living together and no specific recipient was clearly intended, it's possible to argue that the drugs weren't actually in the accused's possession.
  • Mistaken identity—although this certainly wasn't successful in the Ulbricht case, it is a possible defense, especially if the police can't prove who was using the computer over which the sales were conducted at any given time.

For other possible defenses, consider speaking to an attorney who specializes in handling drug charge defense cases. To learn more, contact a law firm like Pollack & Ball LLC