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Justices to decide if bad search voids child molest convictions

May 18, 2018

The Indiana Supreme Court must decide if a Blackford County man’s child molestation convictions will stand despite an unconstitutional search of his home that led to his confession. The question will force the court to grapple with the relationship between two doctrines: attenuation and fruit of the poisonous tree.

The case of David Wright v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-00166, began in January 2016 when the FBI executed a warrant to search for child pornography on a computer at 220½ E. Water St., Hartford City. That address was the upstairs apartment in a home that had been converted into two apartment units, including the downstairs unit at 220 E. Water St.

Both units shared the same internet service, and the FBI ultimately removed electronics — including David Wright’s computer — from the downstairs unit after discovering the shared service. A scan of Wright’s computer showed that he had accessed child pornography, and during further questioning, Wright admitted to molesting two children who also lived in the apartment.

The federal agents subsequently informed the Hartford City Police of Wright’s confession, which he repeated after waiving his Miranda rights. The Blackford Circuit Court later ruled that the search of the apartment was unconstitutional but allowed the admission of Wright’s confession.

Wright was then convicted of four counts of Level 1 felony child molestation, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed after finding his confession was a direct result on the unconstitutional search, thus making it a fruit of the poisonous tree. Wright’s counsel, Chris Teagle, made a similar argument to the Supreme Court on Thursday, telling the justices that the confession and search were so intertwined that they could not be separated.

The state, however, maintained that the attenuation doctrine can apply to challenges brought under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. That doctrine should apply here, deputy attorney general Ellen Meilaender argued, because Wright’s confession was sufficiently attenuated from the illegal search of his home and computer.

Specifically, Meilander told the court that there was no misconduct on the part of state actors. It was the FBI who illegally searched the apartment and began questioning Wright, she said, while the state followed up on the information the FBI provided. Further, the illegal search of the home led to the knowledge that Wright viewed child porn, while the molestation revelations came later, she said.

The justices pushed Teagle on that point, with Justice Geoffrey Slaughter asking where the state had gone wrong. Teagle pointed to the conversation between FBI and state actors, which he said proved the Hartford City Police knew about the illegal search. And when pushed by Justice Mark Massa about what the police should have done with that information, Teagle suggested interviewing the children before interviewing Wright.

Meilander, however, said that adopting Teagle’s argument could make the fruits of the poisonous tree doctrine too broad. Instead, she urged the court to find the attenuation doctrine applicable and Wright’s questioning and confession sufficiently attenuated from the search.

Asked by Chief Justice Loretta Rush about how the federal attenuation doctrine could be applied to the Indiana constitution, Meilander said the court would not need to adapt the federal test because it is sufficiently fact-sensitive. But if that doctrine were adopted here, Teagle maintained the facts of the case would not justify an attenuation finding.

Meilander also briefly addressed the issue of Wright’s aggregate 60-year sentence, urging the court to revise it upward if his convictions stand. Meilander said the trial court mistakenly believed 60 years was the maximum it could impose, when 120 years would have been allowed and appropriate given the nature of the offenses. Teagle did not address the sentencing issue during his argument.

The full arguments in Wright’s case can be viewed here.

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