From the outside, it’s quite possible, maybe even likely, that libertarian sensibilities would cause us to feel sympathetic toward Alfred Anaya. After all, he wasn’t personally doing the evil the law sought to prevent, but selling something that was in great demand. Isn’t that the American way?
Anaya was an artist of sorts, and his artistry was in the creation of traps. He began as a star installer of stereo systems, and took enormous pride in his ability to conceal his work. HIs skill morphed into other areas:
That skill came in handy when customers started asking for traps, presumably as places to hide their weapons, cash, or weed from both cops and robbers. Anaya was happy to provide this service, which appealed to his innate sense of mischief. The first trap he ever saw, designed by one of his Super Sound mentors, was carved into a dashboard, with a door hinged on a power antenna that could be extended or retracted via remote control. Anaya ached to build similarly ingenious compartments that would dazzle his fellow gearheads, who adore innovations that seem plucked from the world of James Bond. “Blowing everyone’s mind, that’s what’s so rewarding about what we do—the feedback and adrenaline you get from that,” Anaya says. “I wanted my compartments to be more sophisticated than anybody else’s.”
A trap can be used to secrete perfectly lawful objects in a vehicle, or contraband, be it drugs, drug money or guns. The former was lawful. The latter, not so much, and Anaya knew it. He didn’t want to break the law, so he didn’t want to know why a customer sought one of his spectacular traps.
He knew full well that he was flirting with danger—he could certainly guess how some of his traps might be used. But he also thought that California’s law on hidden compartments, one of the very few in the nation, offered clear guidance: Building a trap was illegal only if it was done with the “intent to store, conceal, smuggle, or transport a controlled substance.” Based on his consultations with fellow installers, Anaya believed he would cross that line only if a client specifically mentioned drugs.
When the sounds began to emerge from a customer’s mouth that might cross that line, Anaya might make “shh-ing” sounds, or sing “lalalalala” at the top of his lungs. As long as he didn’t hear the forbidden words, he wasn’t breaking the law. At least, that was his understanding.
The problem is a concept called “conscious avoidance.” The significance of one’s conduct can’t be avoided by sticking one’s fingers in one’s ear, creating some half-baked notion of plausible deniability, in order to be able to engage in conduct which is otherwise illegal. One doesn’t remain on the right side of the line by pretending it hasn’t been crossed.
Consider this analogy:
A fellow goes up to a gun dealer and says, “I would like to buy a weapon to keep in my home to protect my family.” Cool, right?
Another fellow goes up to a gun dealer and says, “I would like to buy a weapon to murder my business partner.” Not cool.
A third fellow goes up to a gun dealer and says, “I would like to buy a weapon to mur…,” whereupon the gun dealer starts screaming “don’t say it, don’t say it” and, having silenced his buyer, sells him the gun. Cool or not cool?
At the Advice Goddess, my pal, Amy Alkon, feels sympathetic to Alfred Anaya’s position. After all, Anaya didn’t sell drugs. Anaya engaged in what would otherwise be perfectly lawful commerce, the building of secret compartments. What his customers did with those compartments, whether lawful or not, wasn’t his responsibility.
Then again, the story of Alfred Anaya doesn’t stop at the point of his facilitating drug dealing, but with his refusal, after being caught in a sting, to become a DEA rat. For that, the full weight of the government fell hard on him, as a co-conspirator in his clients’ crimes. While Anaya’s customers rushed to flip, he stood firm, until he was the last man standing, because he maintained the belief that he did nothing wrong. As a conspirator, the weight of drugs he never touched provided his sentencing guideline, until the judge uttered 292 months.
A common hacker refrain is that technology is always morally neutral. The culture’s libertarian ethos holds that creators shouldn’t be faulted if someone uses their gadget or hunk of code to cause harm; the people who build things are under no obligation to meddle in the affairs of the adults who consume their wares.
But Alfred Anaya’s case makes clear that the government rejects that permissive worldview. The technically savvy are on notice that they must be very careful about whom they deal with, since calculated ignorance of illegal activity is not an acceptable excuse. But at what point does a failure to be nosy edge into criminal conduct? In light of what happened to Anaya, that question is nearly impossible to answer.
While the parameters may be fuzzy, the same problems exist here as with any prosecution, where a rat can easily tell a story about how someone like Anaya knew what he was doing, deliberately facilitated their criminal conduct, took their rather generous payment and pretended he was above the fray.
The prosecution of Anaya as a conspirator, on the other hand, carrying the full weight of criminal enterprise that resulted in a sentence of more than 24 years, reveals the excesses of conspiracy, the darling of the prosecution, the government’s adoration of rats, the government’s anger when a person refuses to do its bidding and drug table sentencing.
While Anaya’s involvement with drug dealers can’t be so easily swept away by conscious avoidance, no one is safer because Alfred Anaya, a guy who just liked to build incredibly cool traps, will spend the next couple of decades in prison.