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BB&K Police Bulletin: Search Warrants

Legal Alerts

BB&K Victory Securing Qualified Immunity Controls in Child Molestation Case

JUNE 28, 2013

Overview: The Ninth Circuit recently refused to suppress evidence of child pornography found on the iPod of an alleged child molester during a search of his home. The court explained that the outcome was controlled by its previous grant of qualified immunity in Dougherty v. City of Covina, a case in which BB&K attorneys defeated civil rights claims brought against the city and police personnel under similar facts. In both cases, officers obtained warrants based on affidavits inferring that the child molestation suspects “likely” possessed child pornography. The court reasoned that the standard for granting qualified immunity in Dougherty was the same as the “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule in this case. Based on existing precedent, the court upheld the search as “executed in objectively reasonable reliance” on the warrant.

Training Points: This case illustrates that criminal courts likely will not suppress child pornography evidence seized in reliance upon an issued search warrant that connects child pornography to child molesters based upon the training and experience of the affiant officer. However, this case should be treated as a “safety net” for warrant applications and not an end result. As a best practice, officers should link child molestation suspects with possession of child pornography with as many facts as possible to establish a strong nexus between the suspect, the locations to be searched and the items to be seized. The affiant officer’s background, training and experience should be one of many factors a magistrate considers before issuing a warrant.

Summary Analysis: In U.S. v. Needham, Nicholas Needham allegedly molested a five-year-old boy in the restroom of a local mall. An officer obtained a warrant to search Needham’s home based on an affidavit inferring that such individuals “often possess” child pornography. The district court denied Needham’s motion to suppress evidence seized during the search. The Ninth Circuit agreed, stating that the grant of qualified immunity to officers in Dougherty controlled the outcome of this case. With no established rule linking alleged molestation and child pornography based solely on the affiant officer’s training and experience, the Ninth Circuit shielded searching officers from liability even absent probable cause. The court could not consistently grant qualified immunity in Dougherty while denying “good faith” reliance on a similar warrant in this criminal case. The court upheld the denial of Needham’s suppression motion.

Follow-Up Contact: For questions regarding this case or its implications for your agency and public safety department, please contact Paul Cappitelli, law enforcement specialist, G. Ross Trindle, III, public safety attorney, or your BB&K attorney.

Disclaimer: BB&K legal alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué.

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