Thursday, December 15, 2011

Child Pornography Warrant Based on Observations of Other Officers Saved by Good Faith

US v. Wellman: Wellman was convicted at trial of possessing child pornography, possessing an obscene image depicting minors, and doing so while being required to register as a sex offender, an offense which requires a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence to run consecutive to any other sentence imposed. The convictions were based on evidence obtained from Wellman's home pursuant to a search warrant. The warrant in turn was based primarily on assertions from a child pornography task force in Wyoming that known images of child pornography was present on Wellman's computer. Prior to trial, Wellman sought to suppress the evidence found pursuant to the warrant, arguing that the factual basis for the warrant was not sufficient to demonstrate probable cause because neither the images of alleged child pornography were attached to the warrant application, nor was there any description of the images in the application. The district court denied the motion. After his convictions, Wellman was sentenced to 300 months in prison, including the 10-year consecutive mandatory minimum.

On appeal, Wellman challenged his convictions as well as his sentence. First, he renewed his argument that there was insufficient evidence to support the probable cause needed to issue the search warrant and that in issuing the warrant the issuing judge simply rubber stamped the requesting officer's conclusions. The court rejected that argument, but did so by finding the Leon good-faith exception applied (assuming arguendo that the warrant was invalid) and that the issuing judge did not act as a rubber stamp, nor was the application so lacking in indicia of probable cause to render reliance on it unreasonable. Second, Wellman argued that the district court erred by not instructing the jury that to convict on the obscenity charge he must have known that the image was obscene. Relying on the Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Hamling, the court held that knowledge of such a legal conclusion is not necessary to sustain the conviction. Finally, Wellman argued that the 10-year consecutive mandatory minimum sentence was cruel and unusual punishment, given his age and likelihood that the sentence imposed was actually a life sentence. The court rejected that argument, concluding that the sentence was not a "disproportionate sentence of constitutional magnitude," as it was based largely on Wellman's prior record.

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