Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced Steven Lindhorst's membership as a Jehovah's Witness. Though he was a member when the alleged crimes occurred, he has since been disfellowshipped and, as a result, is no longer a member of the congregation.
Elders in the Jehovah’s Witnesses church violated the confidentiality of a congregation member when they told police about an alleged confession he made regarding child pornography, according to a defense motion.
But, a judge ruled Wednesday, evidence seized after the alleged confession should not be suppressed because there was other information to justify a search of the congregation member’s computer.
Steven Martin Lindhorst, 51, of Paso Robles is charged with two felonies for possessing child pornography and committing lewd acts with a child under 14.
Paso Robles police said Lindhorst had thousands of photos and videos on his computer that showed pubescent children engaging in sex acts. Some of them appeared to be manufactured by Lindhorst, according to the police.
Lindhorst, who is in jail on $160,000 bond, has pleaded not guilty.
According to his defense attorney, Guy Galambos, evidence seized from Lindhorst’s computer should not be permitted in court because the search stemmed from a confession Lindhorst made to church elders, who later violated a clergy-penitent privilege.
That privilege, like attorney-client and therapist-patient privilege, is a legal concept protecting communications that are expected to be private.
According to a court motion filed by Galambos, the clergy-penitent privilege is “based on public policy to encourage people to seek the advice of and to be honest with their religious leaders.”
While that might be an issue at a future hearing regarding those statements, Deputy District Attorney Julie Antos said in court Wednesday that it should not impact the search warrant.
Lindhorst and his wife were both members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses church at the time. According to a defense motion to suppress evidence, the following occurred:
On Dec. 27, 2014, Lindhorst and his wife met with two church elders after his wife claimed she had caught him viewing child pornography on his computer six months earlier. Lindhorst had denied viewing child pornography when confronted by his wife and during his initial conversation with the elders.
On Dec. 31, Lindhorst returned from work to find his computer, hard drive and wife gone. That night, Lindhorst spoke to one of his elders and “confessed” to his use of child pornography, in order to prevent his wife from moving out.
According to the statement of probable cause used to obtain a search warrant, Lindhorst’s wife arrived at the Paso Robles Police Department on Jan. 1 with her husband’s computer and hard drive, which she could not access due to password protection. She said she’d witnessed him viewing photos of girls ages 13 to 15 in sexually suggestive poses six months earlier and on Dec. 27 had found what appeared to be girls underwear in a drawer next to her husband’s computer.
She also said her husband had confessed to church elders.
Contacted by police, the elders said Lindhorst admitted to viewing or downloading child pornography since 1986.
In a declaration filed with the court July 2, Lindhorst claims he has been with the church since age 5 and attended ministerial training school in 1999. “Elders are trained to hold confidential any confessions made by members of the congregation,” he wrote.
On Dec. 31, he wrote, he made a confession to two elders. “The elders did not ask for my permission to tell others about my statements, and I did not give them my permission to tell anyone what I had told them.”
The elders should not have disclosed the confession, Galambos wrote in his motion. And that information should not have been used to obtain a search warrant. Without that information, he added, there would not have been enough evidence to justify a search of Lindhorst’s computers since the photos Lindhorst’s wife had seen depicted clothed children.
But according to the prosecution, the search warrant was based on the observations by Lindhorst’s wife. Even if the photos depicted children in clothing, “a child does not have to be naked for a picture or video to be deemed child pornography,” according to Antos’ motion.
Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy said even without the statements from the elders, there was enough evidence to justify a search warrant.
Lindhorst is set to appear in court again Aug. 8 for a trial-setting conference.