PORTLAND — A former University of Maine at Farmington student who pleaded guilty last year to two charges of possession of child pornography appealed a lower court’s rulings to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
On Tuesday, the state’s highest court heard arguments by the lawyer for Keith Nadeau of Biddeford who was 20 at of his October sentencing. Michael Cunniff told the panel of seven judges that the seizure and searches of Nadeau’s flash drive were illegal and the search of his computer also was illegal.
“The public policy considerations in this case are enormous,” Cunniff said. “It is not just the civil rights of the appellant, Keith Nadeau, which are at issue, but also, the integrity of the criminal justice system hangs in the balance.”
Cunniff said, “The record reflects that the police persistently and recklessly disregarded bedrock legal principles and procedures when questioning Mr. Nadeau when seizing and then searching his computer and flash drive.”
A lawyer for the state argued that the searches and seizures were justifiable and the convictions should stand. Nadeau pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of possession of sexually explicit materials of a person under 16. His plea was conditional, depending on the outcome of his appeal.
Nadeau had sought suppression in Franklin County Superior Court of evidence and statements in connection with the case. Cunniff had asked the court to suppress evidence, including Nadeau’s flash drive and laptop computer taken by UMF police in 2007 along with statements he made to police.
Police were acting on a tip from another student alleging that Nadeau showed child pornography on his laptop in a university dorm room in December 2007.
Nadeau allowed police to enter his dorm room. He denied having child pornography on his computer but said it could be found on his flash drive.
A trial court judge denied Nadeau’s requests to suppress evidence and statements but said seizure of Nadeau’s laptop was illegal and violated the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Cunniff said Tuesday his client couldn’t have made rational decisions and statements when talking to police because of his suicidal state.
After retrieving the flash drive, police told Nadeau, “We’re gonna need that,” Cunniff told the high court. Nadeau handed the flash drive to police, Cunniff said.
Nadeau was neither asked for nor gave consent for the seizure of his flash drive, Cunniff said.
Questioning by justices Tuesday centered on whether Nadeau gave up his flash drive voluntarily and whether he expected police to search the files contained within the flash drive.
Justices also probed questions of legalities involved in delays in processing the seized electronic equipment by state computer lab forensics teams.
Justices quizzed Assistant District Attorney Andrew Robinson about delays by the state’s crime lab in searching information on Nadeau’s flash drive and computer. The lag time exceeded the deadline on the search warrant by months, one of the justices noted.
Robinson pointed to cases in which the court allowed the evidence obtained from materials even though the analysis was done after the search warrant had expired.
Justice Jon Levy questioned Robinson about the level of Nadeau’s willingness to hand police his flash drive, since he wasn’t asked for his consent to seize and search the object.
“Doesn’t consent have to mean more than that?” Levy asked.
Robinson said Nadeau wasn’t ordered to retrieve the flash drive but did so on his own initiative.
The court isn’t expected to rule on the appeal for months.