The Spanish family wrongly accused of child pornography due to a mistake reading a date

An alert from a US organization followed American month-day-year usage, but this was misread by investigators in Spain. As a result, four people went through a nightmare situation

An officer from the Technology Investigation Brigade analyzes seized child pornography material .
An officer from the Technology Investigation Brigade analyzes seized child pornography material .EFE

Imagine being at home and suddenly having four police officers show up with a search warrant, turn everything upside down, take away all your computers and mobile devices, and for the next seven months accuse you of child pornography crimes that neither you, your wife or your adult children have committed.

Then imagine that the whole thing was due to a massive mistake by the police and the courts.

This, and more, is precisely what a family from Madrid went through in 2017.

The day that the police barged into the home of Francisco R., 59, none of the family members understood what was happening. The case was under seal and no information was provided to them, even as officers began going through closets and drawers under the watchful eye of a representative from a Madrid investigating court.

In the middle of it all, the mother, Josefina R., finally blew up: “What the hell is going on here?”

As the hours went by and no damning evidence turned up, the court clerk began to get impatient

It would be months before they found out that investigators had made a mistake with the dates on a child pornography alert from the United States. The report, which alerted the police to an IP address in Spain that had uploaded pornography to Facebook, said the uploads took place on 10/11/2016, which in the US, where the date format begins with the month, means October 11. But Spanish investigators read that as November 10.

A computer’s IP address is dynamic, meaning that it can change every time that it connects to the internet. The family under investigation did at one point have that IP address, but not on the day mentioned in the report, which was sent in by a US group called National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Neither prosecutors nor the investigating judge noticed the mistake. In fact, judging by the chain of events, it is possible that they never even read the original report in English. The IP address was investigated, but for the wrong day.

The family is now suing the state for damages, and asking for €27,000 in compensation. They note that when the Spanish police asked the court for orders demanding that telecoms company Telefónica de España and Microsoft Corporation release information about the IP, they should not have used the Spanish date format.

Nightmare at work

On the morning that the police searched their home, all the family members were there except for Sergio, the oldest of the two sons, who had left early to work on a film production in Aranjuez.

It was around 8am on November 23, 2017 when a police officer phoned and warned that at 9.15am he and several colleagues would come over to the family house to show them some photographs. It was a ruse that two police officers had already used to try to get inside the premises a few days earlier. But Josefina had told them that her husband was not at home, and that they would have to show her a search warrant if they wanted to come in.

On the day of the search, the police showed up half-an-hour early. There were four of them, plus the court clerk. After displaying the search warrant, they began looking for mobile devices and analyzing them on the spot.

Judging by the chain of events, it is possible that they never even read the original report in English

The younger son, who was turning 18 that day, was still in his pajamas, looking scared. His room was filled with posters of FC Barcelona soccer team, and his father still gets angry when he recalls what the police had to say about it. “So you’re a Barcelona fan, eh?” they reportedly asked the young man. “So, are you also a separatist?”

As the hours went by and no damning evidence turned up, the court clerk began to get impatient. At around noon, the officers asked about the older son, who was not there. “He’s in Aranjuez,” said the father. “In that case we’re going there right now,” they replied. “Then I’m coming with you,” the father retorted angrily.

There, in front of his bosses and work colleagues, the police took away Sergio’s computer and phone, and searched his car. “So, Sergio, there’s nothing you’d like to tell us? It’s going to be worse for you later on....” he was told. Father and son stared at one another in disbelief. Sergio shrugged, not knowing what the whole thing was about. But he was deeply embarrassed by the affair.

“How do you explain, at a time like that, that the police is after you over child pornography? What do you tell your bosses?,” says his father Francisco. “It doesn’t matter that you’re innocent: in the end, people think that if the police is here, it must be for a reason.”

Even at home, family members began to look suspiciously at one another. “You ask yourself, what if someone, without meaning to, or whatever, did upload those videos... But I always felt that it had to be a mistake,” continues Francisco. “And it was proven so: all the device analyses, both at home on the day of the search and later at police headquarters, came back negative. None of us had pictures of children or anything.”

Sergio’s computer did contain sensitive information about a movie being made at the time. His father hired a lawyer and the computer was recovered after a month. But a judge opened an investigation. To top it all off, the case was under seal and it was impossible to know exactly what they were being accused of. The family knew that it involved child pornography, but nothing more. When the seal was lifted, it emerged that the problem had originated in a complaint from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) that was channeled to the Madrid courts via the US Embassy in Spain.

The report alerted Spanish authorities to the fact that “a user in Spain,” via the social network Facebook, had uploaded four files – three videos and an image – depicting child pornography. The NCMEC said that the IP was being managed by “Telefónica de España.” The complaint was seen by three elite police units in Spain before landing in Madrid’s investigating court No.14.

It was the family lawyers who discovered the mistake after getting their hands on the court papers. After the case was shelved, it was no easy job securing the documents from the court so the family could use the material to sue the state for damages.

Even though the police found nothing in any of the family members’ devices, the court investigation remained open until February 8, 2018. EL PAÍS has seen a report by the General Council of the Judiciary, Spain’s legal watchdog, admitting that a judicial mistake was made that caused evident damage to the family, who should be compensated.

The case in now in the hands of the Justice Ministry, which is the body in charge of setting the amount of compensation when judges or police officers working for the courts make a mistake of this nature.

English version by Susana Urra.

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