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In re L.S.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District

May 16, 2014

In re: L.S., a Minor,
v.
SHYLA STOPPELWERTH, Respondent-Appellant THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Petitioner-Appellee,

Page 350

Appeal from Circuit Court of Sangamon County. No. 13JA4. Honorable Steven H. Nardulli, Judge Presiding.

SYLLABUS

Respondent's minor child was properly adjudicated neglected and abused based on evidence that the child appeared on a live-feed webcam with respondent and respondent's paramour while being sexually abused.

Sara M. Mayo (argued), of Law Offices of Sara M. Mayo, of Springfield, for appellant.

John Milhiser, State's Attorney, of Springfield (Patrick Delfino, David J. Robinson, and James C. Majors (argued), all of State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor's Office, of counsel), for the People.

JUSTICE STEIGMANN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Appleton and Justice Knecht concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

STEIGMANN JUSTICE.

Page 351

[¶1] In January 2013, the State filed a petition for adjudication of wardship pursuant to section 2-3 of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (705 ILCS 405/2-3 (West 2012)), alleging that L.S. (born July 26, 2009), the minor child of respondent, Shyla Stoppelwerth, was neglected and abused.

[¶2] At an October 2013 hearing on the petition, Sheriff's Deputy Raymond Briant of Broward County, Florida, testified that while he was off duty on a family vacation in Tennessee in December 2012, he used an application on his iPad to watch several publicly viewable, livefeed webcams. One such webcam, listed under the name " Shyla," appeared to show a young boy and a female in a bed with an adult male, who was watching child pornography and masturbating. The young boy also appeared to perform oral sex on the male. Briant, who did not know the identity or location of the parties shown on the Shyla webcam, reported what he saw to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Ireland-based private company that administered the webcam service. The FBI traced the source of the webcam to a house where respondent and L.S. were living with respondent's paramour, Craig Long.

[¶3] At the October 2013 hearing, respondent admitted that she, L.S., and Long were the persons appearing on the Shyla webcam. Over respondent's objection, the trial court admitted into evidence (1) Briant's testimony about what he viewed on the Shyla webcam and (2) 12 still images automatically archived from the webcam by the company that administered the webcam service. Based primarily upon the evidence from the Shyla webcam, the court adjudicated L.S. abused and neglected.

[¶4] Respondent appeals, arguing that (1) the trial court erred by admitting (a) Briant's testimony about what he viewed on the Shyla webcam and (b) the still images captured from the webcam, and (2) the court's adjudication of abuse and neglect was against the manifest weight of the evidence. We affirm.

[¶5] I. BACKGROUND

[¶6] The State's January 2013 petition alleged that L.S. was (1) neglected pursuant to section 2-3(1) of the Act (705 ILCS 405/2-3(1) (West 2012)) in that his environment was injurious to his welfare, as demonstrated by his mother's allowing him to be sexually abused; and (2) abused pursuant to section 2-3(2) of the Act (705 ILCS 405/2-3(2) (West 2012)) in that he was sexually abused by his mother's paramour. That same month, the trial court entered a shelter-care order, placing L.S. in the custody of respondent's aunt, Sheryl S.

[¶7] Later in January 2013, Sheryl filed a petition for guardianship in the juvenile case at issue in this appeal (Sangamon County case No. 13-JA-4). In September 2013, the trial court ordered case No. 13-JA-4 consolidated with an order of protection case (Sangamon County case No. 13-OP-24), which Sheryl filed against respondent on behalf of L.S.

Page 352

[¶8] A. The Hearing on the State's Petition

[¶9] In October 2013, the trial court held a consolidated hearing on the State's petition for adjudication of abuse and neglect, Sheryl's petition for guardianship, and Sheryl's order of protection. (For purposes of this appeal, we review only the evidence pertinent to the State's petition.)

[¶10] 1. Briant's Testimony

[¶11] Briant testified that on December 5, 2012, he was on an annual family vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Several days prior to leaving for his trip, he downloaded to his iPad an application known as " My Webcam," which allowed him to view a live webcam feed from the inside of his home while he was away. Briant set up the webcam so that he and his children could monitor their house cats while they were on vacation. Briant set his home webcam to " private" mode, which meant that only he could view the webcam feed. However, Briant testified that hundreds of webcams on the My Webcam service were set to " public" mode, which meant that anyone using the My Webcam service could view the live feed from those webcams.

[¶12] Over respondent's continuing objection, Briant testified that while using the My Webcam application, he decided out of curiosity to view some of the public webcams. One of the public webcams, listed under the name " Shyla," showed what initially appeared to Briant to be two juveniles in a bed with an adult male, who was masturbating. Briant testified that one of the apparent juveniles was a young boy, approximately five or six years old, with light brown to blondish hair, and wearing a green shirt. The other juvenile appear to be an older, blonde female. (At the hearing, Briant identified that person as respondent.) Briant described the adult male as having black, crew-cut type hair and a large " tribal" tattoo on his left arm.

[¶13] Briant, believing that he was watching " something illegal occurring" and fearing for the welfare of the juveniles, sent multiple e-mails to the Ireland-based company that owned and administered the webcam service, describing what he saw. The company responded to Briant via e-mail, informing him that " they would do whatever they can to forward whatever they could to the authorities." Briant also sent e-mails to the FBI and the NCMEC. In the e-mails, Briant described exactly what he saw on the Shyla webcam.

[¶14] While Briant was attempting to contact authorities, he continued to view the Shyla webcam in order to " help identify where this was, who these people were." Briant then " saw the adult male watching what appeared to be child pornography on his laptop as the little boy came around to the side of the bed and performed what appeared to be oral sex on that adult male." On cross-examination, Briant elaborated about what he saw: " What I saw was the child shown child pornography, the child's, then, head descending over the man's penis, and the man giving back a sippy cup to the young boy after what appeared to be oral sex." After the adult male handed the sippy cup to the young boy, the live feed " seemed to cut out." During the entire 5 to 10 minutes that Briant viewed the Shyla webcam, respondent appeared to be awake, either walking around the room or lying in the bed with the adult male and the young boy.

[¶15] Briant testified that the video had good clarity and appeared to be working the entire time. He knew he was watching a live feed because the same webcam service allowed him to view a live feed inside his home. Briant also knew from his use of the webcam service that it " archived" images from the webcam feeds. Someone viewing a public webcam could peruse that webcam's archive, which

Page 353

showed still images that had been automatically captured from the webcam feed every 5 minutes during the previous 24 hours. Briant looked at the archive of the Shyla webcam, which revealed several still images of the same persons ...


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