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Ex-Judge May Testify in O.C. Porn Case

Testimony by Ronald C. Kline could affect ruling to admit evidence found on workplace computer.

September 19, 2003|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Former Orange County Judge Ronald C. Kline may be called to the witness stand to explain why he didn't realize his courthouse computer could be searched for child pornography -- especially since he helped draft the rules for such searches.

Kline is expected to be asked Monday to explain his role on the Orange County Superior Court's Technology Committee, which developed the policy that warned judges and court staff that their computers were not their property and could be searched.

The hearing could prove pivotal as prosecutors try to salvage a child pornography case that has all but collapsed since Kline was arrested. The case has drawn national attention, particularly as Kline waged a reelection campaign while facing the charges. He later quit the race and gave up his seat on the bench. Judge Consuelo B. Marshall has already tossed out evidence -- including diary entries about his sexual desires and more than 1,500 pornographic images of young boys -- that support six of the seven charges. In her decision earlier this summer, she ruled that Kline's right to privacy was violated by a Canadian man who was working for police when he hacked into the computers used by Kline at home and at work.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Child pornography charges -- An article in Friday's California section of the Orange County Edition incorrectly reported that former Judge Ronald Kline faces one count of possessing child pornography. He faces seven counts, although a judge has thrown out the evidence supporting all but one.

Prosecutors are appealing that decision, but first Marshall must rule on whether to suppress the handful of e-mails, pornographic images and diary entries allegedly found on Kline's courthouse computer. Those items support a single count of possessing child pornography -- the lone criminal charge facing Kline.

Kline's attorneys argue that the government's attempt to save the evidence collected on his work computer is misleading. The question of whether Kline knew about the policy is moot, they say, because his computer wouldn't have been searched without the information provided by the Canadian hacker.

"The chambers computer search was the fruit of the primary illegality; as such, it must be suppressed," said lead defense attorney Paul S. Meyer.

But prosecutors contend police did not need a search warrant to inspect Kline's computer. They argue the court's own policy warned judicial officers and other staffers that their computers were not their property and could be monitored for questionable activity at any time.

The eight-page policy warns computer users that access to sexually explicit and other offensive information is strictly prohibited and that "e-mail, Internet access and personal computers are provided for business use and not a public forum, and as such does not provide for First Amendment Freedom of Speech guarantees."

At the same time, it also states that management may be required "based on a subpoena" to release computer files to law enforcement agencies in a criminal investigation.

Prosecutors have filed a copy of the policy, as well as declarations from Richard Droll, the chief technology officer of Orange County Superior Court since 1993, and Kathleen E. O'Leary, an associate justice of California's 4th Appellate District.

Droll confirms that Kline was on the Technology Committee and attended meetings in 1996 when the policy was drafted and later when it was revised.

O'Leary, who was presiding judge of the Orange County court system when the policy was imposed, sent a memo to the staff on Oct. 13, 1998, which was distributed via e-mail and to office mailboxes.

One of her intents, she said, was to remind staffers that "management retained the right to inspect and examine computers and their contents if necessary."

But Superior Court Judge John M. Watson, the head of the civil panel who has been subpoenaed to testify, says he believes that any judge's work computer is -- and should be -- protected by the Fourth Amendment, regarding search and seizure of property.

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