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Judge cites First Amendment as reason for keeping files in coach's child pornography case sealed

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A Minnesota trial judge Friday denied a media effort to unseal investigative materials in the case of a former college…

A Minnesota trial judge Friday denied a media effort to unseal investigative materials in the case of a former college football coach who was accused of possessing child pornography.

Blue Earth County District Court Judge Krista Jass held that both Minnesota public records law and the First Amendment prevent public access to the files.

Child pornography charges were filed in August against Todd Hoffner, former head football coach at Minnesota State University in Mankato, after a university employee discovered videos of Hoffner’s nude children on his university-owned cellphone, which he had given to the school for repairs. The charges were dismissed in November when Jass said there was not enough evidence to support them.

Fox 9 News in the Twin Cities asked the court in November to unseal the videos, and The (Mankato) Free Press moved in January to intervene in the case, seeking access to the investigative files. Hoffner sought an injunction to prevent all materials from being made public.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney who represented The Free Press, said the unsealing motion was “a bit of a Hail Mary” but worth pursuing because of the chance to shine light on “peculiar decisions” made by investigators.

Public release of the investigative files would describe the “thought process of law enforcement and prosecutors’ really strange decision to prosecute this case,” Anfinson said.

Minnesota public records laws generally provide for access to inactive criminal investigation materials, but keeps such materials secret when they “relate to the alleged abuse or neglect of a child” by a parent or guardian.

This required the court to delve into a “horrific Twilight Zone of what ‘relates to’” means,” Anfinson said.

Jass applied the term broadly. “Here, the entire police investigation for which the government data under consideration was collected or created had connection, relation, or reference to an allegation that [Hoffner] used his children to engage in a sexual performance in violation” of the child pornography laws, Jass wrote.

“Because all data collected or created by police in their investigation of [Hoffner] has connection, relation, or reference to the allegation that [Hoffner] sexually abused his children, all of the investigative data is classified as private.”

Jass further held that releasing the investigation materials would violate Hoffner’s constitutional rights and that his cellphone videos were “protected expression” under the First Amendment.

Jass’s ruling also chided the media, calling the case “an occasion where the press must exercise restraint and direct some effort to protect the rights of an accused.”

“Where the only basis for police action against a parent is the misconception of that parent’s speech or activity protected by the First Amendment, it is difficult to conceive of a more chilling effect on the full expression and utilization of that parent’s First Amendment rights that the government’s intrusion into the private realm of the family home, its rummaging through the family’s personal effects, and its exposure of all that is discovered to the public eye,” Jass’s ruling said. “The Constitution does not permit such collateral burdens on protected expression.”

Anfinson called the First Amendment analysis “completely gratuitous,” and a “mystery,” adding that the case could have been entirely decided under public records law.