An appeal by a prominent local basketball coach convicted on several child-pornography-related charges was shot down by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who upheld his life sentence and found that his rights were not violated when a man took a USB device from his home.
The court ultimately rejected an argument from Gregory Stephen, former Iowa Barnstormers youth basketball coach, that the 180-year sentence for five counts of sexually exploiting a child, one count of possessing child pornography and one count of transporting child pornography was excessive because he did not kill or injure the victims.
In February 2018, a contractor discovered a hidden camera containing child pornography while remodeling Stephen’s home, and a subsequent search by law enforcement uncovered more child pornography, including images of Stephen abusing children.
Stephen argued that this evidence violated his Fourth Amendment rights, which protects persons against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, and wanted that evidence suppressed, a motion that the court ultimately denied in its latest filing.
In his argument, Stephen said that the contractor and subsequently the police chief who took his USB device did so without a warrant. Because of those violations, that evidence and evidence that came out of the search warrant made possible by the discovery constituted “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The court ruled that the contractor was not acting as an agent of the government and was not acting at the government’s request, therefore the Fourth Amendment didn’t apply in these circumstances.
“Not every Good Samaritan is a government agent,” the court stated.
Stephen also argued that the police chief violated the Fourth Amendment when he asked the contractor to cause the discovered USB to the police station without first obtaining a warrant.
However, the court found that the chief did not “seize” the USB and reasoned the chief had not meaningfully interfered with Stephen’s possessory interest in the USB because the contractor had already taken it.
The court also upheld that the USB was subject to probable cause because it was believed to contain child pornography, which would justify immediate seizure pending obtaining a search warrant.
Additionally, the court stated that seizing the USB before obtaining a warrant was justified because it was necessary to prevent the disappearance of evidence, especially because Stephen was still free and actively searching for the USB.
Stephen also argued the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) further violated his Fourth Amendment rights by extending the scope of the search warrant after viewing the USB, an argument that the court denied.
As for his sentence, the court found that his punishment did fall into line with calculated guidelines.
Stephen also argued that the court failed to factor in the time he spared the government, court and victims by pleading guilty.
“At sentencing, the district court expressly considered Stephen’s guilty plea and described it as the strongest mitigating factor,” the ruling states. “But the district court also found this factor outweighed by others, including the fact that Stephen’s acceptance of responsibility was half-hearted. The district court explained that, at sentencing, Stephen ‘focus[ed] ... on his own achievements’ and described his greatest regret as ‘the tarnishment [sic] of [his] reputation and his achievements’ rather than focusing on the harm he inflicted on his victims.”
Stephen also argued his life imprisonment was “simply excessive” as he “did not kill anyone, and no victim was physically injured.”
The court argued that Stephen grossly downplayed the magnitude of his offense, as he had committed a “horrendous offense” by sexually exploiting more than 400 children over two decades.
“Further, the district court acknowledged that Stephen’s use of his position as a youth basketball coach to carry out his offense made it even more sinister,” the ruling states. “Considering the seriousness of Stephen’s offense, the presumption of reasonableness, and the district court’s wide latitude to weigh the factors, we find the district court did not abuse its discretion in imposing Stephen’s sentence.”