Friday, December 08, 2017

Forcing Minor to Masturbate to Collect Evidence Violates Fourth Amendment

Sims v. Labowitz: This is a 1983 civil rights case arising from a state child pornography investigation in Virginia. 17-year old Sims got in trouble for sending a video of his erect penis to his 15-year old girlfriend. While investigating that an officer, Abbott (who died before the suit - Labowitz his the administrator of his estate), with the aid of a prosecutor, obtained a search warrant allowing him to take pictures of Sims's penis, including while erect. Abbot snatched up Sims, took him to a juvenile detention center and, in a room with two other officers, took pictures. During the process he instructed Sims to "use his hand to manipulate his penis" in order to get a picture of it while erect. Sims couldn't meet the challenge. Undeterred, Abbot got a second warrant and told Sims's attorney that if Sims couldn't perform again he would be "taken to a hospital to give him a an erection-producing injection." The second warrant was never executed and the more-senior prosecutor agreed not to use any of the pics taken pursuant to the first warrant. Sims was basically given a pretrial diversion, with the charges dismissed if he performed well on probation. Once his probation term was over (and the charges gone), Sims sued on two grounds: (1) that the execution of the warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights, and (2) that under 18 USC 2255(a)(1) he was a victim of the production of child pornography. The district court dismissed the case.

On appeal the Fourth Circuit reversed the dismissal, 2-1, on the Fourth Amendment issue. First, the court found that Abbot's search did violate Sims's Fourth Amendment rights. Walking through a four-step analysis, the court concluded that both the scope of the intrusion and the manner in which the search was convicted were unreasonable, noting that sexually suggestive searches are "terrifying, demeaning, and humiliating." Furthermore, the place where the search was conducted contributed to the violation. Finally, the court held that there was no legitimate evidentiary purpose behind the warrant (so far as I can tell there's nothing suggesting that someone - the victim, presumably - was going to identify Sims based on some particular characteristic of his anatomy). In fact, the court concluded that it "cannot perceive any circumstance that would justify a police search requiring an individual to masturbate in the presence of others." Second, the court concluded that Abbot was not entitled to qualified immunity because a reasonable officer in his position would have known such a search was unreasonable, even in light of the warrant authorizing it. The court affirmed the dismissal of the production of CP count (because Abbot wasn't doing what he did for "lascivious" reasons) and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings on the 1983 claim.

Judge King dissented on the Fourth Amendment issue, arguing that there was no violation and, even if there was, Abbot was entitled to qualified immunity.

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