Notebooks seized from the apartment of former UW-Madison student Alec Cook, which prosecutors saw as evidence that he schemed to sexually assault women he met on campus, can’t be used during any of Cook’s trials, two judges wrote in a collaborative decision issued Friday.
The first of the notebooks was discovered by police while they performed a limited search of Cook’s apartment with his consent in October 2016, and the contents of that notebook led investigators to get a search warrant to more thoroughly search the apartment a few days later.
That first notebook, and any evidence taken by police during the subsequent search of Cook’s apartment, are out and cannot be used at Cook’s upcoming trials, Dane County Circuit Judges Stephen Ehlke and John Hyland wrote. The decision doesn’t say specifically whether other potential testimony that may be the result of the now-suppressed evidence will also be out.
“The state has not established by clear and convincing evidence that the search of Mr. Cook’s notebook fell within the scope of Mr. Cook’s limited consent,” Ehlke and Hyland wrote, “nor has the state demonstrated that a different warrant exception applies.”
One of Cook’s lawyers, Chris Van Wagner, declined to comment immediately. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said he had not yet seen the decision.
Cook, 21, of Edina, Minnesota, was charged in 2016 with 12 counts of varying degrees of sexual assault involving six women, along with several other charges that include stalking, disorderly conduct and false imprisonment. Prosecutors alleged that 11 women have been the victims of sexual assault or harassment by Cook.
Cook’s case has been broken into seven trials, the first of which is to begin before Ehlke on Feb. 26. Last month, Ehlke and Hyland granted a motion to move the trials to another county because publicity has made it impossible for Cook to receive fair trials in Dane County. The location of the trials has not yet been disclosed.
Last year, Cook’s lawyers argued that Madison police exceeded the scope of the consent that Cook gave them to search his apartment when they read through and photographed pages of a notebook found in Cook’s nightstand. Cook had not given police explicit permission to look for or read any notebooks, only to look for and seize clothing, biological evidence including hair, sex toys, bedding, condoms and lubrication and photographs.
While searching the nightstand, Madison police Detective Grant Humerickhouse found the small leather notebook sealed inside a plastic bag. He removed it from the bag and looked through it, and noticed entries that were systematically formatted. They described women and listed goals that Cook had with each woman.
With a written search warrant that described the notebook and its contents, police seized other notebooks from Cook’s apartment.
State Assistant Attorney General Christopher Liegel and Assistant District Attorney Bryce Pierson argued that based on its evidentiary value and the possible incriminating nature of the writings, Humerickhouse had the authority to photograph the notebook. They also argued that it was reasonable for Humerickhouse to search the notebook for biological material and photographs, as permitted under Cook’s consent.
But the judges said that while police were free under the grant of consent to open the nightstand drawer, take the notebook out of the bag and even shake it to see if something fell out of it, anything beyond that was unlawful.
“Reading the contents of the notebook was unnecessary and a clear invasion of privacy,” the judges wrote. “The limited consent grant did not permit police to gather information regarding Mr. Cook’s personal thoughts or writings. Nor did it permit police to photograph the notebook’s contents.”
Humerickhouse knew that reading the journal wasn’t authorized under the consent agreement, the judges wrote, but instead he “became caught up in what he had seen and could not stop himself from taking further steps. While such conduct is human, it is not to be encouraged if we hope to preserve the ability of citizens and law enforcement to enter into limited consent agreements such as the agreement here.”