MADISON, Wisconsin — The search of a man's computer without a warrant that turned up child pornography was not a violation of his constitutional protection against illegal searches and seizures, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court reinstated four convictions for possession of child pornography against Jeremiah Purtell, of Hartford, overturning a state appeals court that had determined the search was illegal. In a second case, the court also reinstated a conviction against a Fort Atkinson man who allowed his 12-year-old adopted daughter to see sexual images on his cellphone.
Purtell was on probation after being convicted of animal cruelty in Dane County. He complained to his probation officer about not being allowed to have computers, and admitted to her that he maintained a Myspace account.
The probation officer looked at his account and saw images of a half-woman, half-cow that concerned her. She seized his computer in 2007 and found images of bestiality. She then turned the computer over to investigators who obtained a warrant to do a more thorough search, which turned up large volumes of child pornography.
Purtell, 28, was convicted in 2011 on four counts and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
He argued on appeal that the probation inspector's search of his computer without a warrant was illegal, and a state appeals court last year agreed and overturned his conviction. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, disagreed.
A probation agent's search of a computer is allowed if the agent has "reasonable grounds" to believe there may be contraband, which she did in this case, Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the majority.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley dissented, saying the search of his computer without a warrant violated his privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Purtell's attorney, assistant state public defender Eileen Hirsch, said the decision raises questions about whether such searches will be more broadly permissible.
"It creates more ambiguity in the law," Hirsch said.
State Department of Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck said DOJ was pleased with the decision, which "reinforced principles of law that will allow state probation and parole agents to effectively supervise offenders in the community."
In the other case, the court in a 4-3 decision reinstated a conviction against James R. Hunt, of Fort Atkinson, for causing his adopted 12-year-old daughter to view on his cellphone a video of a couple having sex.
Hunt was sentenced in 2011 to one year in jail and seven years of probation.
The court determined that Hunt, 43, received a fair trial, even though testimony from a friend backing up his defense was wrongly excluded. The Supreme Court reversed an appeals court ruling, which overturned his conviction, and ordered a new trial.
Three justices — Abrahamson, Bradley and David Prosser — dissented, saying exclusion of the testimony was not harmless because it bolstered Hunt's defense that the girl had seen a different image of a testicular hernia sent to him by his friend and embellished her story.
Hunt's attorney, assistant public defender Shelley Fite, called the decision unfortunate.
Brueck said DOJ was pleased with the ruling.