A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday in favor of a Virginia man who, as a teen, was ordered by a lower court to be photographed while masturbating in the presence of armed police officers.
“Construing the facts in the light most favorable to [Trey] Sims, a reasonable police officer would have known that attempting to obtain a photograph of a minor child’s erect penis, by ordering the child to masturbate in the presence of others, would unlawfully invade the child’s right of privacy under the Fourth Amendment,” the judge wrote, according to Techdirt.
The photo was part of a sexting investigation into the then-teen, Trey Sims, who had exchanged explicit messages with his then-15-year-old girlfriend. Her mother reported the incident to the Manassas City Police Department in January 2014.
Eventually, the detective assigned to the case, David Abbott (who would later be charged with pedophilia in a separate case), obtained a signed warrant to take photographs of the minor’s naked body—including “the suspect’s erect penis”—so that he could compare them to Sims’ explicit messages, reported ARS Technica.
The police attempt at obtaining naked pictures of a minor failed, so Abbott then obtained a second warrant authorizing police to escort Sims to a hospital for a forced “erection-inducing injection.” Fortunately, after public outrage, the forced injection did not occur.
Abbott committed suicide in December 2015 when officers came to arrest him on separate charges relating to pedophilia.
Ultimately, Sims served one year of probation. By early 2016, Sims sued Abbott’s estate, alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment, among other accusations.
Lawyers representing the Abbott estate allege their client was shielded by “qualified immunity,” which usually protects officers in gray-area situations from legal liability. Apparently an accused pedophile trying to take naked pictures of a minor is a gray area for cops.
The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals found Tuesday that the initial warrant against Sims was an “obvious, unconstitutional violation.”
The 4th Circuit ruled that Sims’ lawsuit against the estate of the now-deceased officer who had led the sexting investigation, David Abbott, could move forward. “We cannot perceive any circumstance that would justify a police search requiring an individual to masturbate in the presence of others,” two of the 4th Circuit judges wrote. “Sexually invasive searches require that the search bear some discernible relationship with safety concerns, suspected hidden contraband, or evidentiary need.”
The case will be sent back down to a federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia.