Texas appeals court upholds FLDS man’s conviction, search of YFZ ranch

In a ruling that could influence the cases of a dozen polygamous men, including their leader Warren Jeffs, a Texas appeals court on Friday said 2008 searches of the sect’s headquarters were legally justified.

The Salt Lake Tribune explains:

The ruling pertains directly to Michael Emack, 60, who pleaded no contest last year to sex assault charges in connection with his polygamous marriage to an underage girl.

Emack, who was sentenced to seven years in prison, is a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The sect is led by Jeffs, who was convicted earlier this month by a Texas jury of sexual assault of a child.

In his appeal, Emack claimed the search warrant used to gather the evidence against him was illegally obtained because it was based on misinformation — a hoax call from a Colorado woman pretending to be an abused 16-year-old plural wife.

That warrant led to a massive raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in April 2008. The evidence collected there led to charges against 12 FLDS men, including Jeffs.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Friday in a press release the ruling “secured a significant victory” in the state’s efforts to “extinguish widespread sexual abuse at the YFZ Ranch … ”

Prosecutor Eric Nichols said “The state believes that the Third Court of Appeals properly applied the law to the facts of the case and to the district court’s ruling.”

Nichols said he anticipates the Emack ruling will apply to the appeals of all the other convicted polygamous sect men. Jeffs has yet to file an appeal on his conviction.

Matthew Waller, of the San Angelo Standard-Times, says the fight may not be over:

In the next few weeks, the case could go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest Texas court for criminal cases, said Dallas attorney Robert Udashen, who is defending Emack and gave oral arguments to the Third Court of Appeals.

Udashen’s opponents expressed confidence in the court’s opinion. [...]

The justices wrote that the April 2008 search warrants and a court order, through which the evidence used against Emack and 12 other FLDS men who have been indicted was obtained, were constitutional and valid. [...]

Among the points in the appeal argument was that first search warrant that allowed the April 3, 2008, raid of the YFZ Ranch in Schleicher County should not have been authorized by Walther.

Walther also presided over the custody hearings of the 438 children removed from the ranch, the criminal trials of the eight men convicted to date from the evidence taken in the raid, and all challenges to the search warrants and the evidence.

The appeal, filed in September, argued that the first search warrant was invalid but led to the Department of Family and Protective Services order that allowed law enforcement personnel to see pregnant minors, and in turn that order led to an April 6 search warrant that actually collected the evidence used against FLDS members.

Emack had no legal standing to contest the interviews conducted through the court order, and the interviews are what brought about the last search warrants, not the April 3 search warrant, the court said.

The interviews were conducted by Child Protective Services agents, who questioned underage girls and determined that they were involved in plural marriages and had children.

“We do not address the merits of appellant’s challenges to the April 3 search, however, because the information gathered during the search was not critical to finding probable cause to issue the April 6 warrant,” the court opinion states. [...]

The court also found that Emack’s freedom of religion was not hindered.

“Appellant does not point to evidence that would support a finding that the searches conducted at the YFZ Ranch curtailed his ability to express adherence to his faith,” the court wrote.

The decision would have ramifications for the appeals of most of the 12 FLDS members because several participated in a joint consolidated motion to get the evidence from the ranch thrown out, Nichols said.

Whether Emack had standing to object to certain matters is among the points Udashen plans to argue in the next level of appeals.

The Standard-Times notes that Emack also pleaded no contest to bigamy charges in April 2010. He was sentenced to seven years on each charge, to be served concurrently.

Texas Third Court of Appeals Opinion

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