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Appeals Court Rules That Investigators Manufactured Evidence in Kiddie Porn Case

SPOKANE, Wash. — A federal appeals court on Thursday reversed a decision granting immunity to State Patrol investigators who wrongly accused a Spokane firefighter of possessing child pornography, and ordered a trial to determine if investigators lied in obtaining search and arrest warrants.

A divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of city fire Lt. Todd Chism and his wife, Nicole, in a case that goes back to a 2007 investigation of websites containing child pornography.

The Chisms sued the State Patrol and officers Rachel Gardner and John Sager in federal district court, contending their constitutional rights were violated because the officers obtained search and arrest warrants based on information that was deliberately false or misleading.

But the district court granted the officers qualified immunity in the case.

The Chisms appealed that ruling.

The case originated in the patrol’s missing and exploited children unit with a tip that included a Yahoo e-mail account associated with downloading hundreds of digital images of child pornography. Patrol investigators said a credit card number linked the Chisms to the account, but they couldn’t definitively link the porn to the couple.

Detectives found fraudulent activity had been reported on three of the four credit card numbers associated with the Chisms’ Bank of America account but not the fourth, which was the one used to buy the porn. The investigative file includes a letter from Bank of America confirming that a fraud complaint had been made for the fourth number in August 2007, but patrol detectives did not receive the letter until after Chism’s arrest

The appeals court found that the officers acted with reckless disregard for the truth in obtaining warrants. Omissions in the warrant requests removed any references to the possibility that someone other than Todd Chism was responsible for the websites.

“Charges were never filed against Todd Chism,” the appeals court said.

In a dissent on the three-judge panel, Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote that the case involved a direct connection between the Chisms’ credit card and two websites containing child pornography. State Police could reasonably conclude that the Chisms might have created the websites, even though it turned out the couple did not, the dissent said.

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