Detectives found child porn on state worker’s phone. Lawyers say cops crossed the line.

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When detectives turned up to search the office computer of Palm Beach County elections worker, he insisted, “I’m not a child pornographer.”

Investigators then grabbed Jeffrey Darter’s phone without permission and found 174 graphic images of child porn, some with victims as young as infants. They were images that could put Darter away for life.

The question now is whether the investigators’ actions constituted an illegal search. Darter’s lawyers say detectives crossed the line by inspecting Darter’s phone without permission and prosecutors shouldn’t be allowed to show the unlawful photos to a jury. A judge will consider the argument Friday.

The trouble began when detectives with the South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children task force showed up Nov. 13, 2019, at Darter’s workplace, where he oversaw computer systems for the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections.

They did not believe his repeated denials about child pornography and put the 63-year-old Darter on notice.

“We’ve been alerted now that you’ve done this, so you’re on our radar at the Sheriff’s Office,” Detective Malory Wildove warned the information technology manager. “So if you are still doing so, I suggest you stop.”

Minutes later, Darter was in handcuffs after Wildove snatched his Samsung Galaxy S9 smartphone during a confrontation inside an employee break room.

Defense attorney Michael Salnick told the South Florida Sun Sentinel: “There are some serious issues with the way the phone was seized, and police shouldn’t have unbridled discretion to forget that there’s a Constitution and people have certain rights.”

Darter, who worked for the elections office for over 28 years, was fired soon after his arrest. He is free on $99,000 bond while the case is pending.

Phone taken without warrant

Detectives say they had no choice but to grab the phone out of Darter’s hand because of fears he would wipe it clean.

“Darter refused to allow me to look at his cellphone to ensure he was not possessing child pornography,” Wildove wrote in an arrest report. “In addition, he became nervous and began using his cellphone. It appeared to me that he may have been deleting evidence of the crime.”

At the time, authorities did not have a warrant to take or examine the phone. They had made an unannounced visit to the elections office to speak to Darter and scan his work computer.

But the spotlight on Darter had begun months earlier. Records show the Department of Homeland Security in February 2019 initially suspected him of having uploaded a child porn image through an account on Kik, an online messaging and social networking site.

The image depicted a girl between 4 and 6 years old being sexually abused by an adult man. Federal agents handed the matter over to South Florida authorities that June.

Prosecutors say they were unable to approve a warrant to search Darter’s home in The Acreage, in western Palm Beach County, because of a mistake by agents in gathering information needed to justify the request to a judge.

Investigators decided to see whether Darter had done anything inappropriate at work. They found out he was a government employee and surprised him.

Darter agreed to provide a sworn statement to Wildove and West Palm Beach police detective Cathy Cognetti.

“I don’t use Kik,” he said. “I don’t know anything about that. But I’m not a child pornographer, no.”

Wildove then asked, “Have you ever seen child pornography before?”

Darter: “Friends … some things they have shown me that I was not interested in.”

As the conversation continued, Darter said child porn is “not my thing.”

The detectives then asked to examine his phone, and Darter refused.

“So there’s likely evidence of child pornography on your phone,” Wildove said.

“I’m not saying that at all,” Darter replied.

The detectives then told Darter’s boss they wanted to see Darter’s computer, and the supervisor consented. Powerless to stop the search — Darter had no expectation of privacy on a work device — he voiced his objection and went to the break room.

Files on his computer included adult porn, images where it is not easy to determine the ages of people, one image of child porn, and videos of Darter “masturbating at his desk,” Assistant State Attorney Mathri Thannikkotu wrote in a pleading filed July 1.

Wildove, keeping an eye on Darter during the computer search, noticed him appearing “nervous” and swiping quickly on his phone. She asked for the phone and then grabbed it after he refused. Darter is accused of pushing both Wildove and Cognetti.

Two days later, the detectives obtained a warrant to search the phone, leading to the charges.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Kirk Volker is presiding over the case concerning Jeffrey Darter, a former elections office manager facing child porn charges. (Marc Freeman / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Kirk Volker is presiding over the case concerning Jeffrey Darter, a former elections office manager facing child porn charges. (Marc Freeman / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Defense attorney Salnick argues that police can seize a phone without a warrant only if there is some urgent need to do so. He said that wasn’t the case here because the detectives had been investigating Darter for five months without trying to examine his phone.

The claim that Darter was “acting nervous” with the phone is “cop speak intended to justify officer Wildove’s illegal conduct,” Salnick wrote in May. “However, the detective had no evidence at that time that the defendant’s phone possessed any illegal images.”

The prosecutor responded that the investigator was justified in taking the phone without a warrant, and other courts have backed police in these situations.

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“The totality of the circumstances in this case led to the reasonable conclusion that the Defendant had the ability and incentive to destroy damning information contained on his phone,” Thannikkotu wrote. “Accordingly, the Defendant’s constitutional rights were not violated.”

Darter has pleaded not guilty to 33 felony charges: 30 counts of child pornography with images of victims under age 5; two counts of battery on a law enforcement officer; and one count of illegally using a computer.

These charges are punishable by up to 465 years in state prison.

The challenge over the phone evidence will be heard by Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Kirk Volker. A year ago, the judge overruled an objection by prosecutors and allowed Darter to have supervised visits with his 8-year-old grandson.

Otherwise, Darter is under orders not to have any contact with any children and to stay offline.

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