Police in Virginia on Thursday backed off efforts to take sexually explicit photos of a 17-year-old to prove a sexting case against him.
Police and prosecutors faced a wave of criticism following news media reports that they had obtained a warrant to take photos of the teen’s erect penis. Police wanted the pictures to compare against photos he is accused of sending to his 15-year-old girlfriend at the time.
On Thursday, Manassas Police Lt. Brian Larkin said the Police Department will not proceed with the plan to take the pictures and will let a search warrant authorizing the photos to expire.
Privacy advocates had criticized the plan as a violation of the teen’s constitutional rights.
The teen’s aunt, who serves as his legal guardian, said she had not heard of the police department’s reversal until contacted by an Associated Press reporter Thursday afternoon. She said she would be ecstatic if police follow through on their statement that they will no longer pursue the photos. But she said she won’t be fully satisfied until the case against her nephew is dropped entirely.
The aunt had sent her nephew to West Virginia, where he grew up, for the past several weeks, fearful that police would show up to enforce the search warrant. The teen’s defense lawyers said authorities had explained that they intended to take the teen to a hospital and chemically induce an erection to facilitate the photographs.
The Associated Press is not identifying the teen or the aunt in accordance with a policy of not identifying juvenile suspects.
Manassas Police Chief Douglas Keen posted a statement Thursday saying that “the decision to pursue prosecution or not lies with the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office and not the Police Department.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert declined to comment on the case in detail, citing ethical rules about discussion of pending cases outside the courtroom.
The teen is charged in juvenile court with felony counts of possession and manufacture of child pornography. The aunt maintains that the charges are overblown and said the plan to pursue photos of her nephew in an aroused state came about only after she and her nephew refused to accept a plea bargain that had been offered.
Larkin said he had no information on why the department no longer plans to pursue the photos. On Wednesday night, the department issued a statement saying it was not their policy “to authorize invasive search procedures of suspects in cases of this nature” but made no definitive statements about whether they would continue to pursue the photos that had been specifically authorized in the search warrant.
Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the pursuit of the photos would have raised serious constitutional questions, compounded by the fact that the subject of the photos would have been a minor and by the fact that authorities apparently intended to induce an erection through a medical injection.
“People have a constitutional right to control their bodies,” said Glenberg, who was unaware of any similar case.
The aunt felt certain that the tidal wave of criticism against authorities is the only reason police reversed course.
“They would have gotten away with this. They were not going to back off,” she said.
Manassas City Manager Patrick Pate acknowledged Thursday that the department and the city had been fielding irate calls from across the country and internationally after the story broke. He said the city was being portrayed unfairly, given the fact that the photos were never actually taken. He also downplayed the possibility that they would ever have been taken, even though he acknowledged that a warrant authorizing them had been issued.
The teen’s lawyers did not immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.