Op-Ed: Why Ulbricht Needed to Get Life

6 minute read

Posted by: Allen Hoffmann, JD

June 2, 2015

Which side are you on?

Whilst life is a spectrum of grey, rather than being black or white, formative years can, in some instances, give us a clue as to which side we’ll end up being on or who we’ll be. There are plenty of kids who enjoyed reading and became writers or lawyers, and others who enjoyed vinegar and baking soda volcanoes to such an extent that we end doctors, lab techs, pharmacists (or perhaps, with a couple of years of organic science behind them, and looking at a way to retire early, meth cooks). Your path may’ve been chosen for you, coming from a family of brick layers or bakers. Some of us grew up with something of a white knight complex. Perhaps a military movie’s leading man or woman in uniform made an impression on us during our teens, perhaps a cop let us hold their hat (or loaded gun) as a child. Others found themselves consistently rooting for the bad guy; maybe we really liked the idea of being Tony Montana, a Bond villain, or Hank Scorpio from The Simpsons, for as long as we can remember. Most grow out of it and lead normal lives. Maybe it was at the careers fair, maybe it was upon getting into college, but people’s paths change. Some will learn about it in a practical manner, only to find the drudgery of policing, or the various pitfalls of full time crime, are far removed from what media had us believe. For those who did take it further, perhaps it was in the first week of the academy, or during one’s first visit to central booking. There’s a certain mystique to playing cops and robbers on an epic scale, and some people persist with it.

Cops and robbers on steroids

The realities of the lives that those who traverse the far ends of the spectrum of the social contract and play both amongst and beyond the norms codified into society’s laws – the dogged investigators, and those wholesale violators, who aren’t merely cogs in the wheel of organizations, but are the driving forces – can be very cold, and very hard. When you go from street level drug dealer to regional organization boss to a national, or indeed, international facilitator of crime, the stakes go up exponentially each time you ratchet up, in terms of the rewards, the risks, and the pressure you can expect. I know a good many on both sides of the fence in a professional capacity, and have witnessed the interplay in and out of court when all the games which precipitate a court battle have concluded. Some hate each others’ guts and take everything personally; guys who like to talk themselves up, either on the violator’s side, or the investigator’s side, are part of the game, and it rarely does the relevant side any favours as far as the opposition’s opinion. Ulbricht went so far as to court the mainstream media, so he had very much thrown down the gauntlet to his silent pursuers. Some pretend the other party doesn’t exist, and some get along in the professional context, understanding that each has their role, and that its not personal. But we’re not talking about the finer points of court room etiquette and professional (dis?)courtesy. Ulbricht, in his alter ego as DPR, issued a major challenge to the world at large, and in due course, that challenge was met. He paid the price of admission, and took the ride, all the way to its conclusion.

Some follow their dreams, and there is a price to be paid.

If you have a dream, the bigger it is, the harder you’ll work, and the more you’ll sacrifice to make it reality. You don’t become a world-class athlete overnight; you will need to sacrifice and sacrifice some more to get there, both the opportunities that you are foregoing now, and aspects of the future while you’re at it. Even if you get to the apex of a sport in your own country, you don’t win an Olympic gold medal unless you work harder than everyone else (unless you’re name’s Steven Bradbury. It seems that Ross Ulbricht had a dream, and he followed it all the way. What he conceived in his mind and how it played out are probably somewhat divergent, but he got the attention of the senate, and was targetted as the figurehead of a cutting-edge, technology facilitated criminal threat which had not been seen before on a similar scale. And now, having been found guilty by a jury, as of Friday, he’s doing two life sentences as a result.

The problem is for LE is, running a DNM is an achievable dream

We’ve all seen it happen again and again since the original Silk Road – market after market has stepped up to fill the vacuum, some more resilient than others. Why? Because this ain’t the Mafia – A proficient coder with a touch of egomania, an unbridled capitalist bent, mixed with a dash of ruthlessness or apathy toward the laws they’re breaking, can acquire the remaining skillsets needed to become the next DPR with an ease which one does not see in the traditional criminal hierarchy. If you have the capacity to code and maintain a TOR site, you could, in this day and age, potentially be the next DPR. The dizzying highs of facilitating international drug trafficking, the intoxicating power of ordering the deaths of those who cross you, could all be yours without the years it would take you to approach it from the traditional pathways. He created the organization anonymously, and in (what at the time seemed to be) a manner beyond the reach of law enforcement.

One of the primary, underlying motivations of Ulbricht’s two life sentences is a concept known in law as ‘general deterrence’ – essentially, “kill the chicken to scare the monkey”, seek to intimidate others against pursuing a similar course of action. Without spending hours philosophically debating the federal sentencing guidelines and the submissions made by both sides as to how sentencing should have played out for Ross Ulbricht, there is one point which is undeniable. Whether you regard Silk Road as a resounding demonstration of the fallacy which is the war on drugs, a harbinger of doom which may well have facilitated your innocent children’s descent into Reefer Madnes had it been left unchecked, or just a solid place to source your MDMA, Ulbricht achieved what he achieved as the ‘kingpin’ of a ‘drug empire’ (do forgive the hyperbole) in an astonishingly short timeframe, and with limited specific expertise or skillsets. No multiple years spent as a foot soldier, dealing on the street, in a larger organization, looking to rise through the ranks and get indoors. None of the ducking and weaving from competitors and law enforcement, which results in a high rate of attrition through incarceration or death.

General deterrence winning the day

Can two life sentences for this kind of conduct be justified on this basis? If we were ignoring the various other aspects considered in the Ulbricht trial, it wouldn’t be as quite easy to say yes – obviously, a good deal of other materials came out at trial, the spurious murders for hire all being a big part of the story. Right now, law enforcement world wide is up against a wholly new animal, and the aim is to disrupt all those who issue a challenge, and put Ulbricht’s head on a pike is part of the game plan; for just as easily as you too maybe the next DPR, the Government would like you to pause and consider that, you too, may just as easily spend the rest of your life in a federal penitentiary.

Updated: 2015-06-02