Court tosses child porn convictions of ex-school headmaster

Court rules search warrants obtained by police were unconstitutionally broad

 By Randall Chase
Associated Press

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware’s Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a former prep school headmaster sentenced to 50 years in prison on child pornography charges.

In a ruling Wednesday, the court said search warrants obtained by police investigating Christopher Wheeler were unconstitutionally broad.

Wheeler was convicted last year on 25 counts of dealing child porn. He waived his right to a jury trial after a judge denied a defense request to suppress evidence seized by authorities.

Wheeler is former headmaster at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, whose graduates include former DuPont Co. CEO Ellen Kullman, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and television personality Dr. Oz.

Wheeler’s attorney, Tom Foley, argued that authorities improperly used possible witness tampering as an excuse to obtain warrants allowing them to search Wheeler’s computers, cellphones and other digital devices.

Wednesday’s ruling follows a January court hearing in which the justices expressed serious concerns about the validity of the search warrant that led to Wheeler’s arrest in 2013.

“The subject of this prosecution is an unsympathetic figure. And the sexual exploitation of children is a dreadful scourge in our society,” Justice Karen Valihura wrote for the court in a 43-page ruling. “... There is always a temptation in criminal cases to let the end justify the means, but as guardians of the Constitution, we must resist that temptation.”

Valihura said that because the state and federal constitutions mandate that the trial judge’s refusal to suppress evidence must be reversed, Wheeler’s convictions cannot stand.

Wheeler was arrested after police, prompted by allegations of sexual abuse for which he was never charged, searched his home and office.

Authorities purportedly were looking for evidence of Wheeler’s communications with Pennsylvania brothers who, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University, contacted Wheeler about their alleged molestation several decades ago.

In reply to a letter from one of the brothers, Wheeler apologized for the pain he had caused, saying, “I did those things.”

“I’ll wait to hear from you about further appropriate steps towards resolution and restitution,” Wheeler added.

Defense attorney Tom Foley argued that nothing in Wheeler’s correspondence or meetings with the brothers suggested, and no allegation was ever made, that he had tried to intimidate them or prevent them from reporting the alleged abuse to authorities.

Foley and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed its own brief in the case, also noted that the computer containing child pornography images for which Wheeler was convicted had last been turned on 10 months before the Pennsylvania brothers began communicating with him in July 2013.

In addition to challenging the search warrant, Foley said prosecutors never proved that Wheeler ever downloaded or looked at any images of child pornography, which he said were automatically cached to Wheeler’s computer from newsgroups to which he had subscribed.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Matt Denn said the Delaware Department of Justice had no comment on the ruling.

Foley, whose appeal was supported by the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ruling “reinforces that a search warrant is not meant to be an EZ Pass for law enforcement to conduct boundless searches.”

“In the same spirit that the 4th Amendment prohibits the search of one’s bedroom drawer or medicine cabinet when police are searching for a stolen motorcycle or stolen TV, that fundamental principle applies when police seek a search warrant for one’s computer and digital devices,” Foley said in an email. “In this case, there was zero probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime would be found anywhere in Wheeler’s house, office or digital universe, yet the police were given carte blanche to search anywhere and everywhere.”


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