FLDS fights warrants; Texas fights back

Attorney General questions the status of church, 2 members

The Salt Lake Tribune/September 19, 2008

Texas officials are mounting their first legal defense of a raid on a polygamous sect's ranch, saying the sect's claim of search and seizure violations are groundless.

In a newly filed court document, the Texas Attorney General's Office sets out arguments it will make at a one-hour hearing set for Oct. 1 before 51st District Judge Barbara Walther.

Lyle Jeffs, Merril Jessop and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints filed motions challenging the state action days after the April 3 raid.

Authorities removed 439 children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado based on allegations of sexual abuse related to underage marriages.

Jeffs and Jessop argue authorities violated members' religious rights with a sweeping seizure of documents, photographs and electronic equipment. The warrants were so broad they "literally allowed the search of an entire neighborhood."

They also say officers knew before entering the ranch that neither the man accused of abuse nor his alleged victim were there.

The state asks Walther to deny the FLDS claims since no charges have been filed against either Jeffs or Jessop and they thus have no standing in the case. Nor does the church, which does not own the ranch, the state argues.

The men also have failed to show privacy or property rights were violated because neither has proved he lives at the ranch.

And constitutional claims related to warrants or seizures are personal rights that do not extend to entities such as a church.

In their motion, the men claimed standing because of their roles as leaders in the FLDS church, their homes at the ranch and children who were taken into custody.

As to the FLDS claim that the warrants were overly broad, the state says simply that they "are wrong."

Two warrants signed by Walther listed the ranch as the place to be searched, detailed suspected sexual abuse and bigamy crimes, named a victim and abuser and identified evidence Texas Rangers were authorized to collect.

The document says Ranger Brooks Long, who requested the search warrants, had visited the ranchand found the alleged victim's descriptions of the property credible, specifically the existence of a "guard shack" that prevented her escape.

The ranger "had probable cause to believe that additional YFZ Ranch residents could possibly be involved in aiding the alleged offender in 'trapping' the victim on the premises," the filing states.

Investigators never found the girl listed in the warrants and the calls to a domestic violence shelter that triggered the raid are now believed to be a hoax staged by a woman living in Colorado Springs, Colo.

But authorities could not have known that at the time, the state argues.

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