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People v. Blair

April 24, 2001


Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit, Whiteside County, Illinois, No. 98--CF--293 Honorable Dan A. Dunagan, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Slater

After a stipulated bench trial, defendant, Gary L. Blair, was convicted of 16 counts of possessing child pornography (720 ILCS 5/11--20.1(a)(6) (West 1992)). On appeal, defendant contends the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress. For the reasons that follow, we reverse defendant's convictions outright.

At the outset, we acknowledge that defendant raises other claims of error. However, in light of our disposition of defendant's claim concerning the denial of his motion to suppress, it is unnecessary for us to address the other issues he raises and we decline to do so.

On the afternoon of July 14, 1998, deputy sheriffs from the Rock Island County Sheriff's Department placed defendant under arrest for disorderly conduct in connection with his videotaping children at Niabi Zoo. Later that day, while defendant remained in custody, deputy sheriffs Steven Dean and Jeffrey Chrisholm traveled to defendant's residence in Whiteside County.

At the residence, they were greeted by Howard Blair, defendant's father. Dean and Chrisholm identified themselves as police officers, informed Blair about his son's arrest, and asked to come in to speak to Blair about his son. Once inside, Dean and Chrisholm asked if they might look at defendant's belongings. Blair gave permission but informed the officers that defendant's bedroom was locked and that he did not have a key to the room. Blair also noted that he lacked a key to certain lockers owned by defendant that were located in the basement.

The search eventually led to a small room in the basement where the officers came upon a computer. Blair informed the officers that the computer belonged to his son. At the hearing on defendant's motion to suppress, Blair testified that he had no ownership interest of any kind in his son's computer. Deputy Sheriff Chrisholm turned on the computer. Dean testified that it was his belief that Chrisholm asked Blair's permission to activate the computer. However, in their testimony, both Blair and Chrisholm denied that any such permission was requested or obtained.

At the suppression hearing, Chrisholm described his subsequent actions in the following manner:

"I *** went to the area where the internet was and I went to the tool bar on the top which showed favored bookmarks and I went down favored [bookmarks] and I clicked that area on. Upon clicking that area on I saw numerous references to teenagers and so forth which made me believe that there was [sic] some items in the computer which contained some types of child pornography."

Dean and Chrisholm then seized the computer. The elder Blair did not recall the officers asking permission to remove the computer, but conceded that his memory of the event was not good. Dean, Chrisholm, and another police officer who had arrived on the scene, all testified that Blair gave them permission to take the computer.

A subsequent search of the computer revealed the presence of 16 files capable of displaying a video or still image depicting either a lewd exhibition of a minor or a minor engaged in a sexual act. As a result, defendant was charged by information with 16 counts of possessing child pornography.

In denying defendant's motion to suppress, the trial court found that Howard Blair had given valid consent to search the common areas of the residence he shared with his son and that his general consent extended to permission to activate his son's computer and inspect its contents. The trial court also found that Blair had the requisite authority to consent to a seizure of the computer. After the trial court's ruling, defendant agreed to a stipulated bench trial but specifically reserved his right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress.

Our federal and state constitutions guarantee the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const., amends. IV, XIV; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, §6. A warrantless search or seizure is per se unreasonable unless it comes within one of a few recognized and limited exceptions. Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 29 L. Ed. 2d 564, 91 S. Ct. 2022 (1971). Moreover, in order to establish the validity of a warrantless search or seizure, the prosecution must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. Coolidge, 403 U.S. 443, 29 L. Ed. 2d 564, 91 S. Ct. 2022.

While affording due deference to a trial court's findings of historical fact and reasonable inferences therefrom, this court reviews de novo the ultimate reasonableness of a warrantless search or seizure and, therefore, the applicability of exceptions to the warrant requirement. See Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 134 L. Ed. 2d 911, 116 S. Ct. 1657 (1996); In re G.O., 191 Ill. 2d 37, 727 N.E.2d 1003 (2000) (following Ornelas principles concerning standard of review). A trial court's findings of fact will not be reversed unless contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. G.O., 191 Ill. 2d 37, 727 N.E.2d 1003.

One exception to the warrant requirement obtains where a person possessing common authority over premises or effects voluntarily consents to a search. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 39 L. Ed. 2d 242, 94 S. Ct. 988 (1974). An item discovered during such a search may be seized if there is probable cause to believe the item is contraband or evidence of a crime and the incriminating character of the ...

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