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Supreme Court Tosses Search Warrant in Child Pornography Case

October 5, 2015

In Shirley v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court held that due to numerous deficiencies in a search warrant affidavit, the trial court should have granted the defendant's motion to suppress computer files containing child pornography that were discovered as a result of a search of his residence.

FBI agents received information from German authorities that a certain IP address had been used to access a child pornography website and that approximately 150 image files had been downloaded. A subpoena to AT&T revealed that the particular IP address belonged to the defendant’s residence. The police obtained a search warrant for the residence and seized the defendant’s computers. As a result of the search of the computers, the defendant was indicted for sexual exploitation of children (possession of child pornography). He filed a motion to suppress the computer evidence, contending that the search warrant was not supported by probable cause. The trial court denied the motion and the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the decision (See, Divided Court of Appeals Validates Search Warrant in Child Porn Case). The Georgia Supreme Court, however, agreed with the defendant and held that the evidence should have been suppressed.

According to the Court, the search warrant affidavit was “rife with issues.” First, the FBI stated that it received information from “German authorities”, however, the affidavit failed to state the type of German authorities. So, there was no indication that the information was coming from a law enforcement agency or other reliable source. The Court then noted that when the affidavit stated that these unknown German authorities identified a website used to distribute child pornography, there was no indication as to whether they were using German law to classify the contents of the website or whether it used some other law or definition. As a result, the Court concluded that there was no evidence that they analyzed the website with regard to United States and/or Georgia law to determine whether the images accessed by the defendant’s IP address contained “child pornography” as defined here. Adding to the problem was that there was no evidence that anyone other than the authorities in Germany had actually viewed the images in question.

Therefore, the Court held that the search warrant affidavit failed to establish probable cause that images of child pornography would be found at the defendant’s home. As a result, the decisions of both the trial court and the Court of Appeals were reversed, and the evidence obtained from the defendant’s computers will now be suppressed.

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