State v. Besola: Overbroad Search Warrant

 

In State v. Besola, the Washington Supreme Court held that a search warrant was overbroad. Because the warrant failed to meet the Constitution’s “particularity” requirement, the court reversed the Defendant’s convictions for Possession of Depictions of Minors Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct and Dealing in such depictions.

Mark Besola and Jeffrey Swenson lived together in Besola’s house. After a friend of Swenson’s, Kellie Westfall, was arrested, she told police that she had seen drugs and child pornography at Besola’ s house. Based on the information provided by Westfall, a judge issued a search warrant for illegal drugs but declined to issue a search warrant related to child pornography at that time.

At the scene, police saw CDs and DVDs with handwritten titles that implied that they contained child pornography. On the basis of this observation, police requested and obtained an addendum to the search warrant.

The language of that amended warrant (and whether it was sufficiently particular) is at the heart of the legal issue in this case.

The warrant indicated that the crime under investigation was “Possession of Child Pornography R.C.W. 9.68A.070.” Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 312 (boldface omitted). The warrant indicated that “the following evidence is material to the investigation or prosecution of the above described felony”:

1. Any and all video tapes, CDs, DVDs, or any other visual and or audio recordings; 2. Any and all printed pornographic materials; 3. Any photographs, but particularly of minors; 4. Any and all computer hard drives or laptop computers and any memory storage devices; 5. Any and all documents demonstrating purchase, sale or transfer of pornographic material.

Police seized a number of computers, memory storage devices, CDs, and DVDs. They ultimately found child pornography on one computer and on 41 disks with handwritten titles. They also found a DVD duplicating device (also known as a DVD burner) attached to the computer. Some disks contained duplicated copies of the child pornography.

A handwriting expert testified that Besola’s handwriting was on at least one of the disks containing child pornography and that indications of both Besola’s and Swenson’s handwriting were on multiple other disks. Both defendants were charged with Possession of Depictions of Minors Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct and Dealing in such depictions.

Although the Court of Appeals affirmed the convictiuons, the WA Supreme Court granted review on the issue of whether the search warrant meet the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement.

The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires warrants to “particularly describe the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” That requirement is heightened if the warrant authorizes a search for materials protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

For guidance, the court reviewed a 1992 case, State v. Perrone, that involved similar circumstances. In Perrone, the Court decided that the warrant in that case failed to meet the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment, in part because it provided for the seizure of items that were legal to possess, such as adult pornography.

Here, the Court decided the decision in Perrone is binding in this case. Under Perrone, the court concluded that many provisions of this search warrant were similarly overbroad. As in Perrone, the descriptions of the items to be seized expressly included materials that were legal to possess, such as adult pornography and photographs that did not depict children engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Similar to Perrone, these descriptions could easily have been made more particular by adding the precise statutory language, “depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.” As in Perrone, the police in this case failed to add that language to their search warrant. Therefore, under Perrone, these provisions were insufficiently particular and thus invalid.

The WA Supreme Court denied the State’s arguments that the warrant in this case is saved by a citation to the child pornography statute at the top of the warrant. TheyCourt reasoned the State was incorrect because the statutory citation does not modify or limit the items listed in the warrant, so it does not save the warrant from being overbroad. More importantly, said the Court, the State’s position conflicts with Perrone and would hinder the goals of the warrant particularity requirement.

Because the warrant fails to meet the Constitution’s particularity requirement, the WA Supreme Court reversed these convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Yes, possessing child porn is illegal. However, so are illegal searches. Warrants must particularly describe the items believed to found. Otherwise, they become a meaningless ticket allowing police to engage a fishing expedition of our bodies, property, vehicles and homes. Good decision.