09/11/2008

Wis. court: Cops illegally taped nursing home

By Ryan J. Foley
The Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — Police who videotaped a man having sex with his comatose wife in her nursing home room violated his constitutional rights, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

David W. Johnson, 59, had an expectation to privacy when he visited his wife, a stroke victim, at Divine Savior Nursing Home in Portage, the District 4 Court of Appeals ruled. Therefore, police violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches when they installed a hidden video camera in the room, the court said.

"We are satisfied that Johnson's expectation of privacy while visiting his wife in her nursing home room is one that society would recognize as reasonable," the unanimous three-judge panel wrote.

The ruling means prosecutors cannot introduce the videotapes as evidence in their case against Johnson, who is charged with felony sexual assault for having intercourse with his wife without her consent at least three times in 2005.

Johnson's attorney, Christopher Kelly, said his client would visit his now 54-year-old wife every day, reading her the Bible and moving her arms and legs so her muscles wouldn't atrophy.

The woman's sister is upset that prosecutors brought charges against him, Kelly said. "She believes her sister's husband was merely expressing his love for his wife and was trying everything he could to bring her back to consciousness," Kelly said.

The couple married in 1988 and had no children, Kelly said.

Kelly said he believed prosecutors would be forced to drop the charges without the evidence on the tapes and thought the appeals court made "a pretty obvious call."

Johnson's wife was admitted to the nursing home after suffering a stroke. Court records say she was unable to speak or sit up, and nursing home staff members fed, cleaned and turned her. Prosecutors say she was comatose.

Johnson visited her frequently and sometimes would close the door to her room so they could have privacy as allowed by the nursing home. But staff members tipped off police, fearing she was in danger because, they suspected, he was having sex with her.

Police obtained a search warrant to videotape the room and installed the camera, which ran for three weeks. Johnson, who is free on bail, was charged based on that evidence.

Sauk County Circuit Judge Patrick Taggart, who heard the Columbia County case as a substitute judge, tossed out the evidence last year, ruling it stemmed from an illegal search. Prosecutors appealed, arguing Johnson had a right to privacy when he visited his wife to care for her but not when he used the room for what they contend was illegal intercourse.

The appeals court affirmed Taggart's ruling.

Department of Justice spokesman Bill Cosh said prosecutors are evaluating whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.

Johnson's wife remains in a coma at the nursing home.

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