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Error in Middlesex DA’s office could affect child porn cases

An error made by an employee in the Middlesex district attorney’s office could affect at least a dozen child pornography cases in the county, authorities said on Friday.

District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office said the administrative assistant was placed on paid leave after prosecutors learned Wednesday that the worker had sent out several administrative subpoenas without prior review and approval by a prosecutor, as required by law.

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The subpoenas are sent to Internet service providers and phone companies. In issuing the subpoenas, authorities are typically seeking to obtain the names and addresses of people who are suspected of engaging in criminal activity on their electronic devices.

Once prosecutors receive the necessary information from the companies, they can ask a judge or a magistrate to issue a search warrant for a particular property.

In a statement, Ryan said that a prosecutor preparing for a hearing in a child pornography case discovered that the office worker, whom she did not identify, had issued a subpoena without proper review. The discovery prompted an internal investigation.

“At this time, we believe this conduct was limited to approximately a dozen matters, all of which involved child pornography investigations that occurred between July 2010 and December 2010,” Ryan said.

She said the information obtained from the subpoenas was used, along with other investigative materials, to secure search warrants.

“The matter is still under review, but in an abundance of caution, we are reaching out to defense counsel on any cases we are aware of that may have been potentially affected,” Ryan said. “The administrative assistant has been placed on paid leave while this investigation continues.”

Stephanie Chelf Guyotte, a spokeswoman for Ryan, would not identify any of the affected defendants or their lawyers, or discuss the status of any of the cases.

Jeffrey Denner, a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Boston, said lawyers for the affected defendants will “certainly” review the matter to see if their clients’ rights were violated.

He said possible remedies could include suppressing evidence or dismissing cases, or simply punishing whoever was responsible for the error. He added that Ryan’s office may implement extra oversight measures, such as double signatures, to ensure compliance with the law.

“You have to put something in place that makes people think very, very carefully before doing this in the future,” Denner said.

He said the Middlesex office is well run, and he commended prosecutors for being up front about the mistake and the subsequent investigation.

Chelf Guyotte said Friday night that she was not aware of any motions that lawyers for the affected defendants may have filed to dismiss cases or vacate sentences. She said prosecutors had just notified defense lawyers earlier in the day.

The news from Ryan’s office comes as the state court system continues to deal with the fallout from the scandal involving Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at a now-closed state lab who allegedly falsified or mishandled a high number of suspected drug samples in criminal cases.

Hundreds of defendants have been freed from prison as a result, and Dookhan is facing a slew of criminal charges in state court.

Denner said that the subpoena issue in Ryan’s office is “somewhat comparable” to the Dookhan scandal.

He said the laws governing administrative subpoenas exist to ensure that the “protections we have against unreasonable searches and seizures aren’t violated. Each link in this chain of protection is important and exists for a reason.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.

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