Federal child pornography charges against a Newport Beach oncologist were dropped Monday after the presiding judge in the case dismissed evidence discovered during what he determined was an illegal search.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney had, in a May 15 ruling, cited concerns about “false and misleading statements” in an FBI agent’s affidavit presented for a warrant to search the Laguna Hills home of Dr. Mark Rettenmaier, a gynecological oncologist at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. Prosecutors said hundreds of images were found of what they described as child pornography.
“In this case, having evaluated the evidence remaining after the court’s ruling on defendant’s suppression motions, the government believes it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Anthony Brown wrote in a statement.
James Riddet, an attorney for Rettenmaier, said, “We’re very, very thankful that the judge conscientiously considered the matter in the illegal search issues and made what we feel is the appropriate ruling, suppressing the evidence, which resulted in the charges being dismissed.”
In November 2011, Rettenmaier took his computer hard drive to Best Buy to be repaired. The drive was sent to a Geek Squad maintenance facility in Kentucky. As a Geek Squad technician was examining the drive, he discovered an image that triggered the FBI investigation and search of Rettenmaier’s home. Rettenmaier was indicted in 2014 on two felony counts of possession of child pornography.
Riddet and co-counsel Ken Miller challenged the FBI affidavit on three issues:
- That the agent failed to tell the judge that the data on the drive was in unallocated space, an area where deleted files are kept, making it difficult to determine whether Rettenmaier was ever aware of it.
- That the affidavit misrepresented the image found — of a nude pre-pubescent girl — as pornography. The judge held that although the image was “distasteful and disturbing,” it did not meet the legal standard of child pornography.
- That the agent claimed the search warrant was justified because of the search by a Geek Squad employee. However, searches of the hard drive also were conducted by a Geek Squad supervisor in Kentucky and by agents at an FBI office. The attorneys contended the technicians were improperly acting as paid FBI informants.
Carney concluded that the photo alone was not sufficient to grant the search warrant for Rettenmaier’s home, meaning the photographs allegedly found on Rettenmaier’s phone, laptop and multiple hard drives inside his home could not be presented at trial.
Since the charges were filed, Rettenmaier has been unable to continue his work at Hoag, Riddet said.
“We’re hoping that Dr. Rettenmaier can go back to practicing medicine,” he said.
DANIEL LANGHORNE is a contributor to Times Community News.