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Georgia Supreme Court Reverses Child Molestation Conviction

February 1, 2012

In Wilder v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of James Wilder on the grounds that the police unlawfully searched a locked briefcase that Wilder had left at a friend's house.

Wilder was convicted in Lincoln County Superior Court of child molestation, sexual exploitation of a child, aggravated child molestation and statutory rape.  His sentence of life plus 60 years in prison has now been vacated and Wilder has been granted a new trial.  The Supreme Court held that that although the locked briefcase was left in the possession of a third party at the time it was seized by the police, Wilder retained an expectation of privacy in the contents of the briefcase.  In other words, his friend did not have the authority to turn it over to the police, especially since Wilder had told the friend that he would return for the briefcase and instructed her not to give it to anyone.  Once the officers had possession of the briefcase, they obtained a search warrant to search its contents.  Wilder’s defense attorney argued that although there was nothing wrong with the search warrant itself, since the search warrant was made possible only as a result of the unlawful seizure, any evidence obtained during the search of the briefcase must be suppressed.  The court agreed and reversed Wilder’s conviction, however, the case was remanded for consideration of the possible applicability of the inevitable discovery doctrine. This is an encouraging decision for Georgia criminal defense lawyers as the same logic used by the Supreme Court here will undoubtedly be applied to cases involving laptops, tablets and cell phones that people, from time to time, leave in the possession of others.  These types of devices are analogous to a locked briefcase and have the potential to store great volumes of data/evidence that the police will seek to obtain.  The arguments made in Wilder’s case will allow defense lawyers in Georgia to argue that third parties do not have the authority under similar circumstances to grant the police access to a person’s computer or other electronic device.

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