Fruits of poisonous tree reverse child molesting convictions

A Blackford County man who admitted to molesting two children living in his apartment will have his convictions reversed after the Indiana Court of Appeals determined his incriminating statements were inadmissible under the fruits of the poisonous tree doctrine.

In David Wright v. State of Indiana, 05A02-1610-CR-2397, David Wright shared an apartment with a married couple and their children. The apartment was part of an older home that had been divided into separate apartments. Wright and the family had the address of 220 E. Water St., while the property owner and their two children lived at 220½ E. Water St.

In January 2016, FBI special agent Jeffrey Robertson arrived at the home with a warrant to search the computers at 220½ E. Water St., but he was not aware the home was divided into apartments. Rather than seeking a warrant for Wright’s specific address, Robertson proceeded to enter his unit and told all the residents he wanted to scan their electronics. However, he did not advise the residents that they did not have to give their consent, nor did he utilize the written consent forms in his vehicle.

Instead, the special agent told Wright and the other residents he could either remove them from their home while he sought a second warrant for their home and computers, or he could take their electronics and return them as quickly as possible. The residents chose the latter option, and a scanning system indicated at least one child pornography image was present on Wright’s computer.

Robertson then returned to the apartment three days later and spoke to Wright about what was found on his computer while sitting in his car.  During the conversation, Wright admitted to having “some kind of contact” with two of the children he shared an apartment with, so Robertson called the Hartford City Police and took Wright into custody.

Wright then admitted in a subsequent police interview that he had performed numerous sexual acts with two children 10 and younger. He was charged with four counts of Level 1 felony child molestation, and asked the trial court to exclude all evidence obtained from the search of the apartment and computers, as well as his statements to Robertson and local law enforcement.

The Blackford Circuit Court granted the former request but denied the latter, determining Wright’s statements to police were detained independently of the warrant search. The trial court then found him guilty, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed his convictions on Wednesday.

Senior Judge Carr Darden wrote for the unanimous appellate panel that Wright’s incriminating statements were directly derived from the search of the apartment that the trial court had earlier suppressed as unconstitutional. Thus, the statements were considered fruit of the poisonous tree.

The appellate court reversed Wright’s convictions and remanded the case for further proceedings, determining it was not necessary to address the issue of whether his sentence was inappropriate.

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