A Pierce County judge Tuesday will rule on whether law enforcement officials had probable cause to search the South Hill-area home of Susan Cox Powell’s father-in-law last year. Steven Powell, 62, wants evidence seized during that search, including photos he allegedly took of young girls and his daughter-in-law, thrown out of court.
The subjects were naked or semi-nude in many of the photos and likely did not know they were being photographed, court records show.
If Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper agrees with Powell, prosecutors likely would be forced to dismiss 14 counts of voyeurism and one count of possession of child pornography with which he’s charged.
Powell has pleaded not guilty and is to go to trial in May.
His defense attorney, Mark Quigley argued Monday that sheriff’s detectives were on an illegal “fishing expedition” when they searched his client’s house in August.
Their investigation into Susan Cox Powell’s 2009 disappearance in Utah had grown “stale” and they were increasingly frustrated when they sought a warrant to seize the woman’s journals from his client’s home, Quigley told Culpepper. Some of the journals apparently were authored before Susan Cox Powell married Steven Powell’s son, Josh, the attorney argued.
“There is no nexus … that connects these journals to any potential criminal activity,” Quigley said.
Even if the hardbound journals were proper evidence, authorities had no right to expand their search to include “any and all digital copies” stored on computers or electronic storage devices in Powell’s house, Quigley argued. Police seized a number of computers, flash drives and other devices during their search.
That was a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, Quigley argued.
It was while reviewing the digital copies that detectives found 2,000 images on which the charges against Steven Powell are based.
Deputy prosecutor Grant Blinn countered that Steve Powell went on a national television program shortly before the search to say the journals were important to the investigation into his daughter-in-law’s disappearance.
Powell and his son, Josh, hinted at the time that the journals might contain information about other men Susan Cox Powell had been involved with over the years, thereby providing other theories as to her disappearance.
Authorities considered Josh Powell a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance right up until February, when he killed his two sons and himself in his South Hill-area home.
He never was charged.
Blinn said the journals were of use to law enforcement whether they implicated Josh Powell or someone else and that probable cause had been established to seize them.
Authorities also need to seize any digital copies of the journals to try to ensure they originals hadn’t been altered in some way, the deputy prosecutor said.
“Law enforcement was meticulous and methodical,” Blinn said.
At one point, Culpepper asked Blinn if he thought police could have gotten a warrant had Steve Powell not gone on television to talk about his daughter-in-law’s journals.
“It would have been a closer call,” Blinn said.
Culpepper is to announce his ruling at 9 a.m.