Manassas' Town Hall. Photo by Flickr user ideatrendz.
Nearly two years ago, prosecutors and police in Manassas City, Virginia sparked a national outcry through their shamefully poor handling of a mother’s complaint.
I was among many observers who labeled their behavior as shameful. Few other words could accurately describe a case in which a 17-year-old, who under state law could legally engage in a sexual encounter with his 15-year-old girlfriend, was charged with creating and distributing child pornography for sending her a sexually explicit video of himself.
When the girl’s mother complained, instead of telling her that consequences for the teens should come from parents rather than law enforcement, prosecutors not only charged the young man, but took pictures of his genitals without his consent. When the first case was dismissed over a failure to properly establish the defendant as a juvenile, prosecutors persistently tried him again.
And, most appallingly, the defendant was told that if he did not plead guilty, the police would take steps to obtain images of his erect penis, whether or not he consented. The 17-year-old was informed he would be forcibly taken to a hospital and given an injection if he didn’t cooperate. His defense attorney spoke to The Washington Post about the absurd escalation of this situation. For her trouble, she was sued for libel by the case’s lead detective, though that case was dropped last November.
That lead detective, David Abbott, is now the focus of a civil rights suit filed by the teenager in question, Trey Sims, now 19. Or rather, Abbott’s estate is its focus, since Abbott committed suicide in December 2015 after being accused of molesting two young boys. According to The Washington Post, Abbot was the officer who took pictures of Sims’ genitals without his consent and who obtained, but did not serve, the warrant to obtain further images. Sims is also suing Claiborne Richardson II, the attorney who directed Abbott to obtain the warrants in question.
Victor Glasberg, the attorney representing Sims, said the episode “derailed [Sims’] college plans” and noted that he had been a good student and a high school athlete. Glasberg is seeking both actual and punitive damages on Sims’ behalf. I fervently hope Sims collects, and collects big, for the patently abusive official treatment he received.
A substantial share of such payment should come from Richardson’s personal funds, considering that the prosecutor authorized and provided legal cover for the detective who most directly played a role in the abuse. But I strongly doubt that the courts will make Richardson pay up, because there is such a strong predisposition to immunize prosecutors and law enforcement for practically anything they do to seek a conviction. The rare exception is typically for physical violence, and then only when it is captured on camera.
Even if Richardson is not financially penalized in this case, he should in no way retain his position after how he handled the Sims matter. If Virginia had anything resembling a bar association interested in protecting the public’s interests as well as its members’, Richardson would lose his law license. So might the judge who authorized the warrants against Sims. As I noted at the time, there was reason to doubt that any medical professional would willingly participate in a procedure designed to obtain such photos, which is ample indication the warrants should never have been issued – as was the fact that publicity alone was enough to prevent the second warrant from being executed. Any self-respecting bar organization would call out any of its members who were involved for endangerment of a minor.
As for Abbott, the charges against him were never proven in court. But, sadly, it does not come as a shock that the detective who was so interested in recording images of Sims’ genitals was implicated in the alleged molestation of two other young boys. Richardson and Manassas City thus find themselves in the position of having empowered Abbott to molest another young man, based on a rationale that was utterly witless from inception.
Glasberg has said that he will not pursue Abbott’s heirs for financial compensation to the extent of any damages not covered by the city’s insurance. This is a remarkable act of charity, and one on which I hope he has Sims’ concurrence. It is, after all, not Glasberg’s money to give away. Assuming Sims does concur with this decision, he shows a degree of compassion and empathy that no official involved in his earlier case ever demonstrated to him.
Since the courts and the bar won’t protect the public from law enforcement run amok, as in this case, legislatures need to reconsider their statutes regarding sexual offenses to prevent absurd situations like this one. If a sexual encounter is legal and consensual, then it simply cannot be a crime for the parties involved to privately and consensually record and share it with one another. Giving detectives, prosecutors and judges the power to declare it so can only lead to harm, as it did in Manassas.