U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Teenager's Privacy Rights Search Warrant Case Goes Back to Court

There is no happy ending to this story, but someday Trey Sims may find closure to his disturbing case.

In 2014, police forced the then-teenager to masturbate in front of them ostensibly as part of an alleged sex crime investigation. The boy had texted sexually explicit photos and video of himself to his 15-year-old girlfriend, and they wanted to see if his penis matched the photos.

Sims served probation, then sued the police for violating his privacy. Before his case got to trial, however, the lead detective committed suicide as police came to arrest him for molesting two other boys.

No Happy Ending

In Sims v. Labowitz, the young man continued his case against the estate of David E. Abbott. A trial judge dismissed the case based on a qualified immunity for police, but the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part.

The appeals court affirmed on some claims, but said Sims may proceed on a civil rights violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

"Construing the facts in the light most favorable to 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," Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote.

The judge also rebuked the detective for demanding the teen masturbate to an erection in front of three officers. "This sexually intrusive search was rendered more egregious by being conducted in a manner that would instill fear in Sims," she wrote.

Odd Man Out

In dissent, Judge Robert Bruce King was the odd man out. He said the detective was entitled to immunity because he had a warrant to conduct the penis-photo search.

"Because Abbott obtained a search warrant and acted within its scope, his search of Sims is presumptively reasonable," the judge said.

According to reports, the detective threatened to take the teenager to the hospital for "erection-producing drugs" if he did not comply. Sims could not perform.

Abbott later secured a second warrant to photograph the boy, but it was never executed.

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