Federal Appellate Court Rejects “Stale Warrant” Claim in Child Pornography Case

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There is no doubt that a police agency must, in almost all cases, have a valid search warrant in possession at the time a search is initiated.

The factors that make a search warrant valid, though, may be subject to interpretation. Birmingham sex crimes defense lawyers know, if a search warrant isn't valid, the content of the items found in the search may be suppressed, and therefore not used against you in court.

In U.S. v. Carroll, recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, justices rejected a defense argument that the information contained in an affidavit was “stale,” and therefore a motion to suppress should be granted.

The defendant had reason to think the argument might work.

Previously, in the case of Prideaux-Wentz, the same appellate court ruled that while collectors and distributors of such illegal images rarely, if ever, discard those collections, there has to be a limitation on the principle that this alone should be grounds for a search warrant, absent some other evidence of more recent information. In finding that the search warrant in that child pornography case lacked probable cause, due to the fact that the warrant affidavit was “stale,” the court noted that the affidavit indicated the evidence pointed to the fact that any images that might have been uploaded by the defendant would be at least 48 months old. The court declined to hold that four years was the cut-off point as a matter of law, but indicated that prosecutors failed to make efforts to find out the exact dates of certain uploads, when they could have easily done this by contacting Yahoo!. That four-year gap, without more recent evidence, undermined a finding of probable cause.

The court was quick to point out, however, that years can pass between information about child pornography cases and the application of a search warrant without rendering that information – and therefore the warrant – stale.

That was ultimately the finding in the Carroll case. Here, the alleged victim was 13 when she went to police to report that five years earlier, her father's co-worker had molested her and, she believed, taken pornographic pictures of her. That made the evidence against the defendant five-years-old – older than the four-year evidence that had been ruled “stale” in the Prideaux case.

In his affidavit to obtain a search warrant, the detective made note of the fact that often child pornography offenders will hang on to outdated computers and images for many years. He indicated the images have great value to offenders because they offer sexual gratification, are tough to obtain, carry the threat of prosecution, carry a highly-negative stigma and are often used to trade for other images. This is why he said it isn't common in these cases to find old computers stuffed in basements, attics or closets for long periods of time.

The search warrant was granted. Images of the alleged victim were found and incriminating statements were made by the defendant. More search warrants were obtained on the basis of these factors, and subsequently more illegal images were found.

He later pled guilty to six counts of sexual exploitation of a child and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He appealed on the grounds of a stale affidavit, using the Prideaux case as precedent.

However, the Seventh Circuit panel ruled that the four-year limit was not a matter of law, and other factors came into play. In this case, they ruled, the detective had adequately outlined why he believed investigators might still find the older images in his home, despite the fact that the crimes had reportedly occurred several years earlier.

His conviction and sentence was upheld.

If you have been arrested for a sex crime in Birmingham, contact Sex Crime Defense Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.

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