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Georgia Supreme Court Reverses on Search Warrant Issue in Molestation Case

January 6, 2022

In George v. State, the defendant was convicted at a jury trial of two counts of child molestation, two counts of enticing a child for indecent purposes, and six counts of sexual battery. On appeal, he argued that the trial court erred in denying his pretrial motion to suppress on the grounds that items had been seized from his home that were not within the scope set out in the search warrant. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling and the Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the issue.

Background and Motion to Suppress

The defendant was accused of molesting the alleged victim during the course of his employment as a youth minister at a church. The police then obtained a search warrant specifically to seize electronic devices in the defendant’s possession and his home. The defendant contended that the police also seized other items, including measuring tapes, a bag, notepads, and other documents, that were not listed in the search warrant.

The trial court denied the motion and ruled that although these other items were not specifically listed in the warrant, the police were entitled to seize any other items that were deemed to be relevant to the case. The court noted that the search warrant affidavit made reference to the defendant measuring the alleged victim and writing down the measurements (during an alleged physical conditioning program).

Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals relied on a line of prior cases that held that police officers are “not compelled to overlook relevant evidence simply because it was not specifically listed in the search warrant.”

Application of Plain View Doctrine

The Georgia Supreme Court held that it was error to conclude that all the State must show is that these other items were “relevant” to the case in order to justify seizing evidence that was outside the permissible scope of the search warrant. The Court explained that the line of cases suggesting this neglected to mention that the seizure of any such evidence must also comply with the plain view doctrine.

The plain view doctrine allows for the warrantless seizure of evidence if two conditions are satisfied: (1) the item must be in the officer’s plain view; and (2) it must be immediately apparent to the officer that the item is evidence of a crime. The Georgia Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that the police officer must have probable cause to believe this merely upon seeing the item in plain view.

The Supreme Court then overruled the line of cases cited by the lower courts since they did not correctly apply the plain view doctrine to the seizure of items that were outside the scope of the search warrant.

Remanding the Case Back to the Trial Court

The Supreme Court concluded that since the trial court failed to apply the right legal standard, the case should be remanded for a determination as to whether the seizure of the items in question was in compliance with the plain view doctrine.

In its opinion, it was pointed out that the officers testified that several of these items were found in various places that may not be considered “plain view,” such as in drawers, inside of a briefcase, or papers that were “folded up and slipped into the back” of notepads. This is important because under the plain view doctrine, the officer “may not manipulate or disturb it” in an effort to determine whether the item is relevant evidence.

Therefore, on remand the trial court must issue a new ruling after properly applying the plain view doctrine. It will be interesting to see whether the trial court finds that it can conduct another evidentiary hearing on the issue or whether the court is bound by whatever evidence has already been introduced by the State.

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