The investigation of a "sexting" case involving a Prince William County (Virginia) teenager, and the desire by prosecutors and police to repeatedly obtain photos of his genitalia, sparked a national uproar in the summer of 2014. Authorities backed down from their second search warrant for explicit photos, and the teen was placed on probation. The case took a further turn last December when the detective, David E. Abbott Jr., was accused of molesting two young boys and killed himself as police moved to arrest him at his Gainesville townhouse.
But the case isn't over. The teenager, Trey Sims, 19, filed a federal civil rights suit Wednesday against both Abbott's estate and Claiborne Richardson II, the assistant Prince William commonwealth's attorney who police said directed Abbott to obtain a search warrant for photographs of Sims' genitalia, for comparison with video sent to Sims' then-15-year-old girlfriend. In June 2014, Abbott did get a search warrant and photograph Sims with a cell phone, which attorney Victor M. Glasberg alleged was manufacturing child pornography. When Abbott and Richardson obtained a second search warrant, for photos of Sims erect penis, reports in The Washington Post "prompted a firestorm of public protest," Glasberg wrote, causing Richardson and Abbott to withdraw the warrant.
Richardson did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday. Though Abbott's estate is named as a defendant, Glasberg said that if liability insurance held by the Manassas City police did not cover the former detective's actions, he would not pursue assets held by his heirs.
The suit was filed in federal district court in Alexandria and assigned to U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton. It states that the incident began when Sims' girlfriend sent nude photos of herself to him by cell phone, which the girl's mother identified at Sims' trial in 2014. Sims responded with "an explicit video of himself via his cell phone," Glasberg wrote, though Abbott testified that the sender's face was not visible. The girl's mother reported the video to the Manassas City police. Sims was then charged with manufacturing and distributing child pornography, but the girl was not. Glasberg said Richardson and Abbott only charged Sims because he is male, a violation of his equal protection rights.
Beginning in January 2014, Sims was placed on home confinement, could not use a cell phone and could only leave home to go to school, Osbourn High in Manassas. When his trial arrived in June 2014, Richardson had to dismiss the charge because he could not prove Sims' age, his lawyer, Jessica Harbeson Foster, said. Leaving the courtroom, "Abbott told Trey, menacingly," Glasberg wrote, "words to the effect, 'This isn't over' and 'I will be back.'"
Richardson then directed Abbott to obtain a detention order for the 17-year-old, and he was arrested and taken to juvenile jail. That day, Abbott obtained a search warrant and at the juvenile detention center ordered Sims to pull down his pants, or Abbott would force him to do so, the suit alleges. Abbott then took photos of Sims' unerect penis with a cell phone, forced Sims "to touch and position his penis for the pictures," Glasberg wrote, "to be photographed as though masturbating, thereby creating child pornography."
Prince William police would later allege that Abbott, an unmarried youth hockey coach who lived with his mother, had been conducting inappropriate relationships with some of his teen players. Glasberg cited the warrants police obtained for two counts of indecent liberties by a custodian and two counts of use of a communication device to solicit a sexual offense, and said that Abbott was "simply gratifying his own perverse pleasures" by photographing Sims. He said Sims was embarrassed and humiliated by the encounter.
Sims was released from juvenile detention but was again placed on home confinement and curfew. Then, later in June 2014, Abbott told Foster that he would need photos of Sims' erect penis to compare to the video sent to the girl. "Det. Abbott advised [Foster]," Glasberg wrote, "that Trey could either accomplish an erection himself or Manassas police personnel would take him to a hospital to give him an erection-producing injection," a threat which was "gratuitous, malicious, wanton and willful."
Abbott did obtain a second search warrant, but after it became public, did not serve it. Sims went to trial on Aug. 1, 2014, after Richardson amended the charge from manufacturing child pornography to possession. Prince William Juvenile Court Judge George M. DePolo ruled, "The court finds facts sufficient on both counts" to convict the teen, "but the court is not going to make a finding at this time." He deferred a finding pending a year of probation for Sims, who was ordered to do 100 hours of community service, could not leave the county without permission, was on curfew and could not use social media or texting, except to his guardian or school.
Sims completed his probation and the charges were dismissed last August. But Glasberg said the episode "derailed his college plans," and he is now working after graduating high school. The suit notes that Sims moved to Manassas City to escape drug-abusing parents, and had been a good student and football and basketball player at Osbourn High.
Meanwhile, Abbott filed a libel suit against Sims' criminal attorney, Foster, for comments made in The Post, but dropped it last year, not long after Glasberg had issued notice to the police and prosecutors that he was preparing a civil suit.
Glasberg said Sims did not want to let the case die. "There are some things," Glasberg said, "that are so outrageously inappropriate that somebody's got to blow the whistle and say, 'You can't do this.'"
Government officials may not claim sovereign immunity from constitutional claims, for actions taken in the course of their job, Glasberg said. But they may claim qualified immunity, for actions they did not know would lead to constitutional violations. Sims is alleging that his Fourth Amendment right not to be unreasonably searched was violated by both his arrest and the photography of his genitalia, and that Richardson and Abbott conspired to violate Sims' civil rights after Sims declined a plea offer from Richardson. Glasberg is seeking both actual and punitive damages.
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