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Evidence on Ex-Judge Is Tossed

Child porn possessed by former O.C. jurist Ronald Kline is ruled inadmissible in a federal case. He still faces a state molestation charge.

October 28, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

A U.S. judge threw out the last of the key evidence Monday in a high-profile child pornography case against a former Orange County judge, effectively ending the federal case against him.

Issuing an oral ruling from the bench in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Judge Consuelo B. Marshall found that images of child pornography discovered on the court computer of former Superior Court Judge Ronald C. Kline were the "fruit" of an earlier illegal search of his home computer and therefore inadmissible.

Prosecutors immediately said they would appeal the ruling to the U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals. "To the question, 'Is there any evidence left after [this ruling]?,' the answer is no," said Greg Staples, an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case. "We obviously don't agree with the ruling and intend to appeal it."

Kline's attorney, Paul Meyer, on the other hand, expressed satisfaction at the outcome. "We are obviously pleased with the court ruling," he said. "It is in line with established precedent. The judge has now suppressed all the evidence in the case."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 84 words Type of Material: Correction
Former Judge Kline -- A story in Tuesday's California section incorrectly stated that former Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald C. Kline faces a state charge of child molestation stemming from an incident that allegedly happened more than two decades ago. That charge was dropped in July after a U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down a California law allowing the prosecution of old sexual abuse cases. The story also erred in stating that he was arrested in 2000. In fact, it was in 2001.

Kline, whose 2000 arrest drew national attention and resulted in his dropping a bid for reelection, still faces a state charge -- to which he has pleaded not guilty -- of molesting a 14-year-old boy more than two decades ago.

Monday's ruling in the federal case followed a decision by the same judge in June that sexually explicit diary entries and 1,500 pornographic photos of young boys found on Kline's home computer were inadmissible as evidence because they were discovered by a Canadian hacker who was working for police at the time.

"The Court," Marshall's earlier ruling said in part, "finds that [hacker] Bradley Willman was a government agent at the time of the intrusion, that Willman thought of himself as an agent for law enforcement, and that Willman's motivation was to act for law enforcement purposes."

As a tool of law enforcement, Marshall wrote, Willman was barred from seizing any personal property without a search warrant.

Kline's legal troubles began when Willman, who called himself a computer cop, hacked into Kline's home computer in May 2000 using a program he had developed that can track a person's online activity. Willman forwarded his findings to a Colorado-based Internet watchdog group, Pedowatch, which then relayed the information to Irvine police.

Willman was tracked down and interviewed by detectives, who later obtained warrants allowing searches of Kline's home as well as computers there and at the courthouse.

Reacting to Monday's ruling, a legal expert described the government's plan to appeal it as an "uphill battle."

"The factual findings make the appeal difficult because the court found that the individual conducting the search was working for the government," said Laurie L. Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School familiar with the case.

On the other hand, she said, "I tend not to predict what the [Court of Appeals] will do because it's fairly unpredictable."

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