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Merrimack Valley

July 1, 2014

Judge dismisses child porn charge

Search of cellphone deemed unconstitutional

NEWBURYPORT — A warrant-less search of a cellphone has led to the dismissal of a child pornography charge against a Lowell man after his arrest by Merrimac police last fall.

Matthew W. Stefanelli, 24, was charged with one count of possession of child pornography following his October arrest for drunken driving on Interstate 495 near Broad Street.

During his arrest, Merrimac officer Steven A. Ringuette searched his cellphone looking for evidence of where he may have been drinking. Instead, he found images of child pornography, prompting the sole charge.

Believing the search was unconstitutional, Stefanelli’s attorney Thomas Dreschler filed a motion to suppress the cellphone as evidence. Despite arguments early last month from assistant district attorney Michelle Belmonte and testimony from Ringuette, Judge Allen Swan granted Dreschler’s motion.

On Friday, Essex County prosecutor Shailagh Kennedy wrote that her office would not be appealing Swan’s ruling and, in the interests of justice, filed a nolle prosequi motion, which in effect, dismisses the charge.

In Ringuette’s report, during the booking process at the Merrimac police station, the officer wrote that he searched Stefanelli’s phone believing he could find evidence related to his drunken-driving arrest.

“I immediately observed images of what I believed to be of juveniles under the age of 16 posed in graphic sexual positions. I believed these images to be child pornography,” Ringuette wrote.

Following the discovery, Ringuette informed a state police detective. He then asked Stefanelli if he could search his phone, to which the defendant agreed. Ringuette then had Stefanelli sign a consent form and kept his phone after the defendant left the station, according to his report.

A further search of the phone resulted in the discovery of additional disturbing images, including naked young girls engaging in sexual acts with older men and women. It was only after that discovery that Ringuette applied for a search warrant with Newburyport District Court, according to his report.

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