Justices reinstate child molesting convictions under attenuation doctrine

Four Level 1 felony child molesting convictions will be reinstated against a Blackford County man after the Indiana Supreme Court found the man’s incriminating statements to police were sufficiently attenuated from an illegal search and seizure of his apartment. The court’s ruling also more broadly holds that the federal attenuation doctrine can be applied under the Indiana Constitution.

The justices unanimously reinstated David Wright’s child molesting convictions on Thursday in David Wright v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-00166. The Indiana Court of Appeals had previously reversed Wright’s convictions after finding his confession to molesting two children living in his apartment was an inadmissible fruit of a poisonous tree – the illegal search of his apartment.

FBI special agent Jeffrey Robertson searched Wright’s apartment in January 2016 after obtaining a warrant to search computers at 220 ½ E. Water St., the address of the upstairs apartment in the home where Wright lived. Wright lived in the downstairs apartment, which had a different address, but Robertson continued with the search after learning both units shared the same internet service.

A scan of Wright’s computer revealed he had accessed child pornography, and during further questioning three days later Wright admitted to molesting the two children who also lived in his apartment. Robertson turned that information over to the Hartford City Police, who also obtained a confession. Though the Blackford Circuit Court later determined the search of the apartment was unconstitutional, it allowed the admission of Wright’s confession and convicted him on the child molestation counts.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine in January, and during a Supreme Court oral argument in May, attorney Chris Teagle urged the justices to accept the COA’s ruling. The high court, however, agreed with the state’s argument that Wright’s confession was “amply attenuated from the illegal search of his apartment.”

The justices’ decision in Wright’s case was based on the underlying ruling that the federal attenuation doctrine can be applied via Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. Writing for the court, Justice Christopher Goff said Thursday the attenuation doctrine “acts as a reasonable check on the exclusionary rule’s fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.”

“Indiana law has not endorsed a but-for exclusionary rule that automatically excludes all derivative evidence acquired from an illegal search or seizure,” Goff wrote. “And the attenuation doctrine sets the outer limits for exclusion by tailoring the rule to its purpose – deterring police misconduct and defending Hoosiers’ privacy rights.”

The court then laid out a three-part inquiry for examining attenuation claims under the Indiana constitution, though the justices noted they would not limit themselves to considering only these three factors in future inquiries:

  • “(T)he timeline – particularly, the time elapsed between the illegality and the acquisition of the evidence;
  • (T)he intervening circumstances – what, if any, intervening circumstances occurred in that time; and
  • (T)he police misconduct.”

Applying the test to Wright’s case, the court noted Wright had a weekend between the illegal search and his incriminating statements to determine what he would say to Robertson upon his return; Wright voluntary spoke with federal and local law enforcement, and; “(t)he police did not commit flagrant misconduct here or exploit the illegal search.”

“The record does not suggest (Hartford City Police Detective Cody) Crouse exploited the illegal search,” Goff wrote. “Detective Crouse Mirandized Wright and obtained a written waiver from him before interviewing him.”

Thus, Wright’s statements were admissible under an attenuation analysis, the court held. The justices also upheld Wright’s 60-year sentence, declining the Wright’s request to decrease and the state’s request to increase the sentence.

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