Published on: Saturday, June 10, 2023

Evidence of child pornography found on a defendant’s phone must be suppressed and his plea vacated because the application for the search warrant didn’t adequately establish probable cause, the First Circuit said (article available here).

The good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule also didn’t apply because the warrant was so deficient in probable cause “no officer could reasonably rely upon it,” the court held.

Massachusetts state police investigated a suspect for seven weeks on allegations that he sexually abused a child. He contacted a witness during the investigation, which led to the police obtaining a warrant to search his phone for evidence of identity fraud, unauthorized access to a computer, witness intimidation, and impersonation of a police officer.

While searching the phone, the police found pictures they believed were evidence of child pornography and requested a second warrant. In that warrant application, the police said that they had seen pictures on the phone that were “images of prepubescent penises that lacked pubic hair.”

The warrant was granted and the police found three videos of the suspect sexually abusing a child on his phone.

Federal prosecutors charged Sheehan with three counts of sexual exploitation of children. After his motion to suppress the evidence was denied, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Sheehan argued that the second warrant was unsupported by probable cause because the application neither attached a copy of the images to which the search was directed nor described them with sufficient detail to establish that they were pornographic.

Child nudity alone doesn’t make an image pornographic—the images must be lewd or lascivious, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said.

The case is United States v. Sheehan, No. 21-1983 (1st Cir. June 8, 2023).