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Court to Cops: Forcing a Teenager to Masturbate in Front of You Is Not Reasonable

A detective who was later charged with molesting children performed the humiliating search while investigating consensual sexting.

Manassas Police DepartmentManassas Police Department"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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit declares in a decision it issued on Tuesday. It is hard to argue with that conclusion (although a dissenting judge did). It is even harder to imagine the circumstances that made it necessary.

As Robby Soave noted at the time, the story started with a video that Trey Sims, a 17-year-old Virginia boy, sent to his 15-year-old girlfriend in 2014. According to David E. Abbott, the Manassas detective who handled the case, the video showed Sims "fondling his erect penis," making Sims guilty of producing child pornography, an offense in which he was both victim and perpetrator. While investigating this supposed crime, Abbott obtained a search warrant authorizing him to take "photographs of the genitals, hands, and other parts of the body of Trey Sims that will be used as comparisons in recovered forensic evidence from the victim and suspect's electronic devices." The warrant explicitly covered "a photograph of the suspect's erect penis."

Abbott and two uniformed, armed officers executed the search warrant in the locker room of a juvenile detention center, where Abbott ordered Sims to "pull down his pants so that photos could be taken of his penis." Abbott then instructed Sims to "use his hand to manipulate his penis in different ways" so the desired photograph of an erect phallus could be obtained. When "Sims was unable to achieve an erection," Abbott "took photographs of Sims' flaccid penis using Abbott's cellular telephone."

Unsatisfied with that picture, Abbott obtained a second warrant for another photo shoot. But before he could serve it, the publicity generated by complaints from Sims' lawyer led the Mannassas City Police Department and Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert to condemn Abbott's methods. Claiborne T. Richardson II, the assistant commonwealth's attorney who had approved both search warrant applications, announced that the second warrant would not be executed and that the photographs Abbott had already taken would not be used as evidence against Sims.

The juvenile court reduced the charge against Sims to felony possession of child pornography; that charge was dismissed after Sims completed a year of probation. But that was not the end of the case. Sims' family hired Victor Glasberg, an Alexandria civil rights attorney, who helped them file a federal lawsuit under 42 USC 1983, which allows people to recover damages from police officers and other officials who violate their constitutional rights. Because "Abbott died before the present case was filed," Sims sued the administrator of his estate, along with Richardson.

The 4th Circuit does not mention how Abbott died, but it seems relevant in understanding his treatment of Sims. Abbott shot himself outside his home in December 2015 after Prince William County police arrived to arrest him on suspicion of molesting two boys he met as a youth hockey coach. "In spite of these recent developments regarding the serious allegations against him," the Manassas City Police Department said, "we are grateful for the contributions Det. Abbott made during his time with Manassas City Police." His contributions included investigating sex offenses as a member of the Northern Virginia-Washington D.C. Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton dismissed Sims' lawsuit, finding that Richardson was protected by absolute immunity as a prosecutor and that Abbott was protected by qualified immunity because the actions described by Sims did not violate any clearly established constitutional rights. The 4th Circuit disagreed with the latter conclusion. "Both the outrageous scope of the sexually intrusive search and the intimidating manner in which the search was conducted weigh strongly against any finding that the search was reasonable," Judge Barbara Milano Keenan writes in an opinion joined by Judge Albert Diaz. "We cannot perceive any circumstance that would justify a police search requiring an individual to masturbate in the presence of others."

Since there was already enough evidence to sustain the charge against Sims, Keenan says, the "exceptionally intrusive" search was not just excessive but entirely gratuitous. "Because there was no justification for the alleged search to photograph Sims' erect penis and the order that he masturbate in the presence of others," she writes, "we conclude that well-established Fourth Amendment limitations on sexually invasive searches adequately would have placed any reasonable officer on notice that such police action was unlawful."

While allowing Sims to proceed with his claim under 42 USC 1983, the 4th Circuit said Judge Hilton was right to dismiss Sims' claim under 18 USC 2255(a), which authorizes lawsuits by victims of child pornographers. Abbott's pictures of Sims would qualify as child porn only if they were produced with "lascivious" intent, Keenan says, and "Sims did not plausibly allege that Abbott acted with the purpose of sexually exciting himself"—a questionable judgment in light of the charges that drove Abbott to suicide.

Writing in dissent, Judge Robert King says Abbott's humiliating treatment of Sims—supposedly justified, lest you forget, by a crime that Sims committed when he took a video of himself—was entirely reasonable, as reflected in the search warrants approved by a prosecutor and two magistrates. "Detective Abbott was acting pursuant to the advice of counsel and adhering to a court order," King writes. "In my view, Abbott's actions were entirely consistent with applicable law and the Fourth Amendment....When a judicial officer—such as a state court magistrate—has issued a search warrant upon probable cause, specifying therein that which is to be searched and seized, it is unreasonable to require the officer charged with executing the warrant to reject the judicial decision and disobey the court's directive."

King's framing of the issue obscures the facts that it was Abbott, in consultation with Richardson, who sought the warrant to begin with, and that it was Abbott who chose to execute the warrant in a particularly degrading manner, all of which seems even creepier given the circumstances of the detective's death. Abbott's actions were so outrageous that his superiors and Richardson's boss swiftly repudiated them once the story went public. The fact that two other police officers, a prosecutor, and two magistrates nevertheless deemed them reasonable is not a defense of Abbott. It is an indictment of his accomplices.

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  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    Then I don't want to be reasonable.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Writing in dissent, Judge Robert King says Abbott's humiliating treatment of Sims—supposedly justified, lest you forget, by a crime that Sims committed by taking a video of himself—was entirely reasonable, as reflected in the search warrants approved by a prosecutor and two magistrates.

    Procedures were followed.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Just following orders

  • higgyb||

    Normally I dismiss allusions to nazis but as Hugh's take was without reason, I'll join you in this.

  • Carter Mitchell||

    Everyone seems to be missing the bit of truly cheerful news: that Abbott blew his own brains out. With luck, this turkey might follow suit. That's one way to drain the swamp.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This really looks like a system trying to cover for itself instead of coming to terms with the fact that they set up an apparatus allowing a pedophile to gratify himself under the color of law and with zero accountability.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    You don't have to bring up the FBI in EVERY conversation, Fist.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    YES I DO. In fact, it's my best pickup line.

  • BYODB||

    "Hey, baby, I'm a Federal Breast Inspector..."

    *whips out his badge*

  • higgyb||

    Badge, if you're lucky.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Oh, and let's not forget that Detective Abbott tried suing the kid's attorney for defamation for suggesting what everyone other than Manassas law enforcement was thinking: that forcefully taking teen dick pics is unseemly for armed agents of the state.

  • MarkLastname||

    FBI: Federal boner inspector.

  • Teddy Pump||

    They probably did not know he was a pedophile at the time!.....Anywhooooo, the police actions to me were illegal!!!

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Anyone else feel like people are sucking all the fun out of police work these days?

  • Hugh Akston||

    I mean it's not like cops can shake kids down for loose cash like they can with adults; kids are fucking broke. So if you can't slam them into walls or take pictures of them masturbating, how are you supposed to bully them around to make yourself feel like a worthwhile person?

  • Unemployed Armenian Tranny||

    Good points.

  • Juice||

    Sounds like those Mormon and evangelical boy's camps that are largely disciplinary in nature. They regularly are staffed by sadistic perverts. "Oh, you were caught masturbating? For your punishment you have to masturbate in front of us using Bengay." That sort of thing.

  • Holmes IV||

    *citation needed.

  • ace_m82||

    Huh, I went to evangelical camps several times and never saw nor heard of that. Also, I lived half a mile away from one of them for over 2 decades. Also, both of my parents worked there after I became an adult. Also, I've been on the grounds as a volunteer dozens of times.

    Odd, it's almost like you're making things up!

  • Subpoena'd Woodchipper||

    Maybe you were not their type? Can't tell if you are disappointed from your post

  • Fancylad||

    Heh, Juice watched the "Jesus Camp" documentary and thought it was real.
    Selectively-edited pamphleteering efforts funded by Mark Cuban might not necessarily contain actual facts.

  • sarcasmic||

    Just when I thought my opinion of law enforcement couldn't get any lower...

  • Unemployed Armenian Tranny||

    I've given up. There is no floor.

  • gaoxiaen||

    There is a floor. It's called the event horizon.

  • joebanana||

    @sarcasmic
    You got that right. I think the proper terminology is a "RICO".

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Abbott shot himself outside his home in December 2015 after Prince William County police arrived to arrest him on suspicion of molesting two boys he met as a youth hockey coach. "In spite of these recent developments regarding the serious allegations against him," the Manassas City Police Department said, "we are grateful for the contributions Det. Abbott made during his time with Manassas City Police." His contributions included investigating sex offenses as a member of the Northern Virginia-Washington D.C. Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

    Well, you know what they say about setting a thief to catch a thief.

  • BYODB||


    The 4th Circuit does not mention how Abbott died, but it seems relevant in understanding his treatment of Sims. Abbott shot himself outside his home in December 2015 after Prince William County police arrived to arrest him on suspicion of molesting two boys he met as a youth hockey coach.


    And how he'll be in the gun statistics as a gun-related homicide. Even in death, he still managed to screw everyone else.

  • Duke of url||

    This hero lay down his life, in the "line of duty,"™ ,
    ThE LINE OF DUTY!!™

  • gaoxiaen||

    In death serving Project Mayhem we have a name. His name is not Robert Paulson. And he offed himself. Good decision on his part.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton dismissed Sims' lawsuit, finding that Richardson was protected by absolute immunity as a prosecutor...

    Which clearly makes sense as no prosecutor would ever facilitate at the point of a gun the manufacture of child pornography.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Anything on the magistrate who issued these warrants? It might do some good to discipline the judges who write these checks.

  • Duke of url||

    I almost never see accountability the part of the 'hon. judge rubberstamp', when circumstances they authorized to be legal, make the news.

  • Hank Phillips||

    And the name of the dissenting appellate judge? All they need now is a coroner to say it wasn't suicide. He was simply saluting a picture of Judge Roy and his gun went off, honest!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Court to Cops: Forcing a Teenager to Masturbate in Front of You Is Not Reasonable

    We need a court to tell us this... ok then.

  • Zeb||

    Yeah, it's a good thing we have the courts to help us understand this complicated and ambiguous question.

  • JuanQPublic||

    And more so, how does one "perpetrate" a crime against oneself (regarding the teenager)? That one is absolutely insane.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Okay, avoiding the question of whether it was an appropriate photo to take in the first place, why was a detective taking photos on his cell phone camera? Baring an emergency situation where there isn't time to get proper equipment to the scene, why would this be done with a phone? If it's really "evidence" then it should be treated as such.

    Maybe this really is "official procedure", but when I'm taking official pictures of something for work, I don't whip out my phone and snap 'em, I get the guy that has a proper camera and good lighting to do it. I might snap and send a pic if I just need a quick consult, but for something that's going to be part of evidence? This can't be right.

  • sarcasmic||

    Because cops do whatever they want, and use violence on anyone who tries to stop them. Fuck you, that's why.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    On the one hand, if I'm really just doing my job, I'm not going into the presence of a nekkid suspect on my own, just so I hate a witness to my behavior. On the other hand, you shouldn't be forcing the kids to get hard.

    It makes me wonder if he could take the 5th, if the pictures could be construed as testimony rather than evidence. Can you force a suspect to recreate a scene as evidence?

  • Teddy Pump||

    "On the one hand & then on the other hand"???....You just created the best Reason Pun of the Year!!!

  • Barbara Yarhead||

    That explains why he would hate for someone to witness the behavior.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Poor kid. Horrible cops.

  • JoeB||

    Cops do not need to be involved in sexting...unless its.....Carlos Danger!!!

  • Karl Hungus||

    When you take a sadist and a pederast and put that man in a faggoty little costume that allows him to indulge his most horrific urges under color of law, these are the sort of hijinks you can expect.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    They had to sexually exploit the boy's penis in order to save it.

  • JudoPete||

    It would also seem to be forcing the young man to self-incriminate by providing evidence against himself.

  • L.G. Balzac||

    If it's against the law to have a pic of your own dick or someone else's, why did they need evidence of whose dick it was? They knew it was a dick. Also sounds like they were violating child labor laws. Do your own work.

  • L.G. Balzac||

    Reason posted a "Dick" pic for this story.

  • Tony||

    Jesus fucking Christ.

  • joebanana||

    And this cop isn't guilty of possessing child porn, child molestation, and other horrific crimes against that child.? How does that happen? Badges don't grant special "rights".

  • Incredulous||

    This is so many levels of fucked up.

    The kid didn't even commit a crime. People should have a basic right to photograph themselves. It's their fucking body. And he was 17. That's not a child anyway. The prosecution of him was the fucking crime. Then, the police officer, enabled by a fucked up judiciary, sexually abused the poor kid. This wasn't a search. It was fucking sexual abuse. The officer, if he lived, should have gone to prison for sexual assault. And anybody who enabled him, including the judge who issued the warrant, should go to prison for aiding and abetting a sexual assault. But it won't fucking happen because government is inherently fucking evil.

  • John C. Randolph||

    The 4th circuit should have directed the pervert to approach the bench, and then beaten the crap out of him with their gavels.

    -jcr

  • Hank Phillips||

    It is pleasing to see that at least one government payroll nationalsocialist molester took the advice of Austin's own Uranium Savages: "Kill your self... before someone does it for you!"

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