Appellate Court’s Opinion Reinforces Importance of Fourth Amendment Protections in Sexual Exploitation Case

In an April 2024 opinion regarding sexual exploitation of a minor, Division Two of the Arizona Court of Appeals sided with the defendant by ruling that the government should not have searched the defendant’s personal property without a warrant. The case revolved around the defendant’s spy camera, which he put in a bathroom to secretly record the young foster girls living in his home. On appeal, the court had to decide whether the officer searching the camera’s SD card had the right to do so without a warrant.

The Officer’s Search

The government first became aware of the hidden camera when a teenage foster girl living at the defendant’s house spotted it in the common bathroom and brought it to her Department of Child Safety caseworker. The caseworker called the police, and one of the police department’s detectives examined the device a few days later. On it, he found videos of the girls in the bathroom.

Proceedings Below

The defendant was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor, and his case went to trial. Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing the officer should have had a warrant to search the SD card associated with the camera. The trial court denied this motion, and a jury ultimately found the defendant guilty as charged. The defendant was sentenced to 90.5 years in prison.

The Defendant’s Appeal

The defendant appealed the denial of his motion to suppress, arguing that criminal procedure clearly indicates the officer should have gotten a court warrant before searching his private SD card. The government’s argument centered around the defendant’s so-called “abandonment” of the device – since he had left the camera in a shared bathroom, said the government, he essentially abandoned it and left it free for the officer to search.

The court disagreed with the government’s argument. It was incorrect to say, said the court, that the defendant abandoned the device when it remained in his house the whole time. The detective thus had no grounds to search the device without a warrant, and he should have applied for one with the trial court before beginning his search.

Criminal defendants have safely guarded protections under the Fourth Amendment, meaning an officer cannot search an individual’s personal property without strong legal basis. Because of these protections, the court reversed the defendant’s convictions and sentences, remanding the case for an entirely new trial.

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