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Criminal Charges for Porn-Trolling Lawyers

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on December 21, 2016 5:57 AM

At what point did these attorneys realize they were crossing the line? Did they even know what line they were crossing?

Paul R. Hansmeier and John L. Steele may have suspected they were doing something wrong in 2010 when they started their porn-trolling operation through Prenda Law. They set up shell companies to buy copyrights for pornographic movies, uploaded those movies to file-sharing websites, and then threatened to sue people who downloaded the movies.

Or maybe Hansmeier and Steele realized they had crossed the line when they made their own movies to upload in their enterprise. According to court records, the attorneys went to porn conventions in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Miami, where they hired actors and "produced multiple short pornographic films."

Certainly, they knew it was wrong in 2013 when U.S. District Judge Otis Wright sanctioned them for defrauding the court. Prenda Law, filing about one third of the copyright claims in the federal system at the time, was abusing it.

But the Prenda Law lawyers may not have known until now that the line they crossed would lead to jail.

End of the Line

Federal prosecutors last week unsealed an 18-count indictment charging Hansmeier and Steele with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit and suborn perjury, and other charges. The indictment alleges the men netted about $6 million between 2011 and 2014 by threatening fraudulent copyright lawsuits against hundreds of victims.

"Abusing one's position as a licensed attorney and using the courts and legal process to file false and abusive copyright claims that threaten individuals and encourage fraudulent settlements is wrong and will not be tolerated," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell said in a statement.

The indictment alleges the defendants extorted money by threatening victims with financial penalties and public embarrassment unless they paid a $4,000 settlement. To distance themselves from the specious lawsuits and any potential fallout, the indictments says, the defendants created and used Prenda Law and other companies to pursue their claims.

Presumed Innocent?

In a disclaimer, the prosecutors' office said the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. However, it is basically over for the erstwhile lawyers.

Hansmeier filed for bankruptcy, and the Minnesota Supreme Court suspended his law license. Ethics charges were also lodged against Steele. The lawyers are appealing more than $261,000 in sanctions.

Another attorney, Paul Duffy, was also involved in Prenda Law. Duffy crossed the other bar, and died of heart and alcohol-related conditions last year.

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