MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell is asking the state Legislature to allocate $200,000 for additional manpower to investigate and prosecute child pornography offenders, this in view of the fact that only a small fraction of such cases are able to be pursued under current budget constraints.
Sorrell, a 15-year incumbent facing a re-election challenge this fall from Chittenden County State’s Attorney and fellow Democrat T.J. Donovan, sat down with the Addison Independent on March 21 to outline Vermont’s challenges in bringing child porn purveyors to justice and the tools that public safety officials are using in the ongoing battle.
The attorney general also discussed his litigation track record and recent federal court setbacks in the state’s efforts to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
Sorrell, 65, has been touring the state for the past few weeks underscoring Vermont’s efforts to crack down on those who possess and distribute child pornography.
He explained the material is most commonly shared on peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing networks — such as LimeWire, FrostWire, GigaTribe, etc.
“There is no reasonable possibility of an accidental download,” Sorrell added, noting file names with such tags as “9yo Vicky stripping,” “6yr old yo underage child daughter childsex,” and “interracial child sex.”
Fortunately for investigators, offenders using P2P file sharing leave an evidentiary trail that can be tracked using special software, Sorrell noted.
The software reports how many separate files containing child pornography are being shared by each computer and how many times the computer and the particular IP address has been sharing the identified child pornography.
As of March 15, the software had identified 250 IP addresses in Vermont at which police officials had identified child pornography being shared.
But police are only able to actively investigate a handful of those cases due to a lack of dedicated resources, according to Sorrell.
Such efforts are currently funded at around $222,000 annually through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Sorrell noted. That money pays for overtime, equipment, outreach and education, as well as a mental health program for investigators, examiners and prosecutors who are confronted with very painful and disturbing images.
Sorrell believes Vermont could make a bigger dent on the backlog of 250 cases by allocating $200,000 for a full-time investigator for on-line monitoring and investigations, and a full-time attorney to coordinate referrals and prosecutions.
“It is time for the state to step up,” Sorrell said.
While the Shumlin administration and many lawmakers are supporting Sorrell’s request, Vermont’s prosecutors believe the funds should be spend differently. They would like to see more computer analysts to process that evidence in an effort to get more convictions.
Ultimately, Sorrell is optimistic the Legislature will OK the $200,000 and that it will be put to effective use.
Those convicted of offenses under state (as opposed to federal) law, Sorrell said, are not likely to be thrown in jail, but rather placed on probation for 10 or more years and added to a sex offender registry.
“There will be more community awareness of a specific threat,” he said.
And Sorrell added he has no problem tipping the state’s hand to current and potential child pornography offenders. He believes that the more offenders know about the state’s plans and capabilities, the more they will either get rid of their illicit files and computer equipment and stop what they are doing, or never start in the first place.
“The truth is, the existence of this P2P software monitoring technology has been out there in public documents in court cases for a long time, in affidavits supporting search warrants to be able to get into a home to seize a computer,” Sorrell said. “If you get out of the P2P because you are nervous, then it is not available to thousands of other people in the network. And if you throw away your computer and lose your ability to access (that material), we’ll take (that as a victory). That’s a good day at the office.”
Sorrell also discussed his record.
“Whether it is in environmental protection or consumer protection, civil rights enforcement or defending state statutes, or criminal law enforcement, we have handled successfully cases of huge import here in state of Vermont and some of national significance,” Sorrell said.
He specifically cited Vermont’s adoption of the stricter California automobile emissions standards. The case drew opposition from auto manufacturers who challenged the new law in federal court. The state of Vermont prevailed, and Sorrell noted the stricter emissions standards have now become the national norm.
“I am certainly proud of that,” Sorrell said.
He added the state successfully defended several of its statutes, including civil unions, DNA date bank and labeling of consumer products containing mercury.
But Sorrell acknowledged his office has also been on the losing side of some high-profile cases, including failed efforts to uphold Vermont’s proposed campaign finance law (overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court) and the state’s efforts to close Vermont Yankee (blocked by a federal judge).
“The Vermont Legislature pushed the envelope there,” he said of the campaign finance law, which substantially tightened the fundraising rules and limits for those seeking office in the Green Mountain State. “(Legislators) were fully apprised there was no state in the country that has limited spending in political campaigns and that we were likely to get sued.”
With prevailing federal laws equating campaign contributions to free speech, defending Vermont’s law proved a tall order.
“We have a tradition in this state of pushing the envelope,” Sorrell said, noting Vermont’s track record of being the first state to outlaw slavery and give men the right to vote without property ownership.
“When you push the envelope, you don’t always succeed,” he added. “And you don’t always succeed when you are going up against what is arguably the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court in at least the last 100 years in this country.”
Sorrell conceded his office also sustained a recent setback in federal court in the effort to close Vermont Yankee. U.S. District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha has ruled that federal law pre-empts a state law that called for closure of Vermont Yankee this month, the end of its current operating license.
Sorrell has appealed the decision.
“I think it would be irresponsible for us not to litigate the appeal and litigate it forcefully,” Sorrell said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]