Utah Supreme Court reverses some child porn counts against teacher in unusual scrapbook case

(Courtesy Salt Lake County jail) Michael Scott Hatfield.

One page at a time, the justices looked at cut-and-pasted images of children posed in sexually suggestive ways.

And through this process, the Utah Supreme Court reversed multiple convictions against a former teacher in an unusually graphic ruling that touched on a gray area in Utah’s child pornography laws.

The Tuesday ruling stems from a Utah middle school teacher who was caught in 2017 with explicit homemade scrapbooks that he stashed in his desk at American Preparatory Academy in West Valley City. Michael Scott Hatfield, now 61, pleaded no contest to four counts of second-degree felony sexual exploitation of a minor, and has been in prison serving a one-to-15 year sentence since May 2018.

But Hatfield appealed his conviction, asking the Utah Supreme Court to decide a question: Were the collages considered pornographic under Utah’s laws? It depends, the justices decided.

In the ruling, Justice John Pearce detailed three pages from Hatfield’s scrapbook. For each page, the justices analyzed whether the images were created “for the purpose of causing sexual arousal.”

That meant that an image of a nude girl cut-and-pasted in a way to suggest the girl was reaching to touch a nearby image of a man’s erection was child pornography, the high court ruled, but a page that showed a clothed girl posed similarly was not. An image of a clothed girl posed near an oversized penis similarly was not child porn as defined under Utah law, the high court ruled, because it did not depict a sex act.

Pearce wrote that while the two images of clothed children were “disturbing and undoubtedly exists for the purpose of sexual stimulation,” the collages could not be considered pornography under the definitions in current statute. He noted that the justices must follow state law and could not apply the standard in a famous U.S. Supreme Court case in which a justice wrote that, when it comes to obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

The Utah justice wrote that it appeared the images of the young girls had been taken from art and photography books, as well as personal photographs. The images of adults were cut from pornographic magazines.

Ultimately, the justices overturned two of Hatfield’s convictions, but two were upheld. A district court judge in 2018 ordered sentences that run at the same time, so it’s not clear whether the Utah Supreme Court’s decision will affect how much time Hatfield will ultimately spend behind bars. He does not have a parole date.

Hatfield had been a teacher for 27 years and had been at the West Valley City charter school for three years prior to his 2017 arrest.

Authorities began investigating Hatfield after a school employee reportedly noticed Hatfield cover his in-classroom camera. But the camera still captured audio, and the school official heard sounds that suggested the teacher was masturbating, according to charges.

School administrators later found two 4-by-6 inch scrapbooks with sexually explicit images and called police.

Hatfield, at his sentencing hearing in 2018, said that he began covering his classroom camera as a way to give himself privacy to grieve for his father, but things “escalated and spiraled to a dark place.”

He told the judge that he had “never crossed the line” with any of his students, but admitted they were likely confused and frightened by what happened.

Editor’s Note: Utah Supreme Court Justice John Pearce is the husband of Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce.