Classically Liberal tells the Kafkaesque tale of Matthew Bandy, an Arizona teenager who faced a possible sentence of 90 years in prison because of nine images on his computer that the government identified as child pornography. Police, who (naturally) seized the computer during a ridiculously excessive military-style raid, apparently obtained a warrant based on Bandy's alleged visit to a website that included child porn. But that site was not the source of the images on his computer, and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas could not prove the pictures had been deliberately downloaded (as opposed to planted by malicious software), let alone that Bandy had downloaded them. After putting the kid through hell for two years, Thomas tried to save face by charging him with a trumped-up felony that consisted of showing another boy a copy of Playboy. Bandy pleaded guilty to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison. To add insult to injury, Thomas tried to force Bandy, who had admitted to nothing but looking at legal pornography, to register as a sex offender.
The case, which was recently covered by ABC's 20/20, illustrates several dangerous trends, including laws that treat the possession of pictures more harshly than rape; militarization of the police, who routinely use SWAT teams to serve search warrants on nonviolent offenders (as documented in a recent Cato report by our own Radley Balko); arrests (and convictions) based on nothing more than data on a hard drive that may or may not have been placed there by the computer's owner; sex offender registries that throw harmless people together with child molesters; and excessive prosecutorial power based on vague laws and harsh mandatory sentences. Thomas, who comes across as dishonest and not terribly bright, is unrepentant, saying he hopes Bandy learned a "hard lesson" about the dangers of looking at dirty pictures. He implies that anyone who inadvertently comes across Internet porn featuring models 17 or younger deserves whatever he gets, presumably including a life sentence.