STATE v. THOMAS WILLIAM SAWYER, SC 20132

Judicial District of Ansonia/Milford

 

      Criminal; Search and Seizure; Whether Search Warrant Affidavit Established Probable Cause to Believe That Defendant Possessed Child Pornography; Whether Connecticut Constitution Requires "More Probable Than Not" Standard of Proof to Establish Probable Cause for Search.  In July, 2015, the defendant was a member of the Holy Cross Brotherhood and living in a four-bedroom suite in the rectory of Saint Vianney Church in West Haven.  Brother Lawrence Lussier, who also lived in the rectory, contacted the West Haven police to notify them that he believed that the defendant was viewing child pornography on his computer.  Lussier told the police that he had observed the defendant looking at two images on his computer—one of a naked boy who appeared to be approximately eight or nine years old standing with his genitals exposed and one of a naked girl with her hands covering her genital area.  Based on the information supplied by Lussier, the police obtained a warrant to search the defendant's residence, and the police seized the defendant's computers during the search.  The defendant was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography in the second degree after a forensic analysis of his computers uncovered 427 still image files that appeared to depict child pornography as well as a number of video files.  The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the search, claiming that the search warrant affidavit failed to establish probable cause to believe that the images described by Lussier constituted "child pornography" in that they depicted individuals under sixteen years of age engaging in "sexually explicit conduct" as defined in General Statutes § 53a-193 (14).  The trial court denied the motion to suppress, ruling that the judge who issued the warrant was entitled to draw a reasonable inference from Lussier's observations that the defendant was in fact in possession of child pornography.  The trial court also ruled that the question of whether the pictures actually depicted "sexually explicit conduct" was not a relevant inquiry for the court that issued the warrant.  Following the denial of his motion to suppress, the defendant pleaded nolo contendere to the child pornography charge, conditioned on his right to appeal and challenge the suppression ruling.  On appeal, the defendant claims that the warrant affidavit did not establish probable cause to justify the issuance of the search warrant in violation of his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.  The defendant claims that the judge who issued the search warrant unreasonably inferred that, based on Lussier's description of two images of nude children, illegal images of children would be found on the defendant's computers.  The defendant also asserts that the trial court improperly found that the question of whether the pictures observed by Lussier actually constituted child pornography was not relevant to the determination of whether there was probable cause to justify issuance of the search warrant.  Finally, the defendant urges that the Supreme Court should interpret our state constitution as requiring a “more probable than not” standard of proof for establishing probable cause justifying the issuance of a search warrant or, in the alternative, that such a heightened standard should apply in cases, like this one, where a search warrant issued even though it was not known at the time whether any criminal activity has occurred.