|Salinas Priest Asks Court to Suppress Evidence in Molestation Case
By Virginia Hennessey
January 8, 2010
A Salinas priest accused of molesting a teenage parishioner was in court Thursday, where his attorney began an effort to suppress child-pornography evidence in the case.
Lawyer Eugene Martinez maintains Salinas police illegally seized an external hard drive from the Rev. Antonio Cortes' church office when their search warrant was written for his home.
Cortes, who is suspended from his duties as pastor of St. Mary of the Nativity Church in Salinas, is accused of engaging in sodomy with a 16-year-old boy in the rectory of the church April 14, then providing him alcohol. The boy told police that Cortes was giving him "spiritual massages" and alcohol for a few years, beginning at Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield, where Cortes was previously assigned.
On April 16, armed with a search warrant for the rectory at 1747 Second Ave., police seized a laptop computer and two external hard drives from Cortes' living quarters. According to testimony at the preliminary hearing, police found "tens of thousands" of images and videos depicting boys as young as 6 years old engaged in sexual activity.
On Thursday, Martinez began questioning of officers who conducted the search, suggesting one of the hard drive, "the blue hard drive," was taken from Cortes' office when detectives Don Klein and Eulalio Villegas went there to arrest him before the search. The church office is across the street from the rectory at 1702 Second Ave.
Villegas testified he never saw an external hard drive in the priest's office. When he and Klein entered, he said, Cortes was at his desk with a laptop computer opened in front of him. When he told Cortes he was under arrest, Villegas said, the priest reached for his cell phone. The detective grabbed the phone and handcuffed Cortes. The cell phone and the laptop, which Cortes said was his, were seized.
Prosecutor Rolando Mazariegos agreed Thursday to return the laptop to Cortes. Unlike a computer seized from the priest's bedroom, the office laptop contained no pornography, he said. According to police, the cell phone contained photos of shirtless adolescent boys.
After the hearing, which will continue Feb. 5, Martinez said he has evidence that the blue hard drive was taken from the office and moved to Cortes' bedroom across the street, where it was taken into evidence.
At issue is whether police could seize evidence from an address not listed on the search warrant. Mazariegos said if the named subject of a search warrant has contraband when he is arrested, it can be seized. The search warrant listed computers and external storage devices as items to be taken.
Martinez said computers, hard drives and cell phones are not contraband.
"It's not the equivalent of walking in and seeing cocaine on a table," he said. "If (the blue hard drive) was seized outside the warrant and placed in his house, it was done illegally."
Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 753-6751 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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