Ross Ulbricht, the convicted founder of massive darknet marketplace Silk Road, filed a federal lawsuit last week accusing the Federal Bureau of Prisons of “substantially burdening his exercise of religion.” Ulbricht is serving consecutive life sentences at USP Tucson in Arizona on seven charges including money laundering, computer hacking and conspiracy to traffic narcotics.
Silk Road ran on the Tor network, a program that routes online traffic through intermediary servers, effectively encrypting and anonymizing all IP addresses before they connect with any site. By running his website on Tor, Ulbricht, who operated under the screen name “Dread Pirate Roberts,” was able to conceal the site’s IP address. Combined with his use of bitcoin, he was able to turn Silk Road into a fully anonymous online marketplace.
By March 2013, two years after the site’s launch, 10,000 products were available for sale on Silk Road, 70% of which were drugs grouped under the categories of stimulants, psychedelics, prescription, precursors, other, opioids, ecstasy, dissociatives and steroids/PEDs. According to a study performed by Carnegie Mellon University, an estimated $15 million in transactions were made annually on the darknet site, all of them being paid with bitcoin.
An attorney for Ulbricht, Brandon Sample, said prison officials are in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by refusing to allow him to communicate with his father through the TRULINCS email system.
The RFRA, enacted in 1993, prohibits the federal government from “substantially burdening any aspect of religious observance or practice unless imposition of that burden on a particular religious adherent satisfies strict scrutiny.”
“Ulbricht is a practicing Christian who is incarcerated in federal prison,” the May 5 lawsuit filing reads. “Ulbricht sincerely believes, consistent with his Christian faith, that he is obliged to honor his father and mother.”
The suit cites Exodus 20:12, which commands Christian practitioners to “honor your father and mother.”
The lawsuit claims that Ulbricht believes that being unable to continue to speak with him is inconsistent with Exodus 20:12. The only way Ulbricht would be able to communicate with his father, Kirk, is by using another federal inmate’s TRULINCS account — a violation of prison policy. Ulbricht’s father lives in a remote area of Costa Rica that cannot receive mail or phone calls, leaving the TRULINCS email system as Ulbricht’s only option.
“Ulbricht is in a ‘catch 22’ of sorts,” Sample wrote. “Do not communicate with his father in violation of his sincerely held religious beliefs or communicate with [him] in violation of the BOP’s rules, exposing Ulbricht to penalties and sanctions.”
In the requested relief portion of his lawsuit, Ulbricht asked that the court issue an order requiring federal authorities to permit him to use TRULINCS, cover his court costs and attorney’s fees, and grant him any additional relief the court sees fit.
Ulbricht was initially arrested in October 2013 by federal authorities, who also seized his website, following off-duty research compiled by IRS criminal investigator Gary Alford that implicated him as the owner of Silk Road. He was indicted on charges of money laundering, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, computer hacking and paying $730,000 to have six people killed — a charge that was later dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Two years later, Ulbricht’s trial began. He admitted to founding Silk Road, however, claimed to have transferred ownership to Mark Karpeles. Defense attorneys said Karpeles was the true mastermind behind the “Dread Pirate Roberts” screenname and asserted that he set Ulbricht up as a fall guy.
A little over one month after his trial began, Ulbricht was found guilty on all counts. Following the conviction, he was moved from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York to USP Florence High, before finally being transferred to USP Tucson.
Before his sentencing, Ulbricht wrote a letter to federal judge Katherine Forrest, urging the judge to show leniency as prosecutors demanded a lengthy sentence to set an example for aspiring criminals.
“Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness,” he said. “I learned from Silk Road that when you give people freedom, you don’t know what they’ll do with it.”
Ulbricht added that he was naïve, ruined his life and destroyed his future. He said that a life sentence was “more similar in nature to a death sentence than it is to a sentence with a finite number of years,” urging the judge to leave him his “old age.”
“Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead, and a chance to redeem myself before I meet my maker,” he said.
In 2020, The Daily Beast reported that former President Donald Trump was considering pardoning Ulbricht, however, that pardon ultimately never came as Trump left office.
This is a guest post by Ethan Biando. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.