Hysteria Over Sexting Reaches Peak Absurdity

A judge in Virginia granted a warrant for police to take a picture of a 17-year-old's erect penis—an extreme adult reaction to teenage sexuality.

A 17-year-old boy is forced by adults to submit to an injection that makes his penis erect. The adults command him to strip and photograph his genitals against his will. I am not describing the twisted crime of a registered sex offender. Incredibly, that was the scenario that prosecutors in Prince William County hoped to arrange or persuaded a judge that they hoped to arrange, according to reports in the Washington Post and at an NBC News affiliate. The boy was already forced to let law enforcement photograph his flaccid penis, the articles add.

What alleged crime ostensibly justifies this most intrusive and traumatizing investigation? The teen’s lawyer, Jessica Harbeson Foster, spoke to the newspaper: "Foster said the case began when the teen’s 15-year-old girlfriend sent photos of herself to the 17-year-old, who in turn sent her the video in question. The girl has not been charged, and her mother filed a complaint about the boy’s video."

The crime of which he stands accused?

"Two felony charges, for possession of child pornography and manufacturing child pornography, which could lead not only to incarceration until he’s 21, but inclusion on the state sex offender data base for, possibly, the rest of his life," the Post reports.  

After these press reports began appearing, law enforcement issued a carefully worded statement that doesn't actually contradict the attorney's version of events. "It is not the policy of the Manassas City Police or the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office to authorize invasive search procedures of suspects in cases of this nature and no such procedures have been conducted in this case," the statement asserts. "Beyond that, neither the Police Department nor the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office discusses evidentiary matters prior to court hearings."

This would seem to leave open a couple of possibilities: that while it is not policy to induce erections in cases like this, there have been efforts make an exception in this case (everyone agrees that no such procedure has happened yet); or alternatively, authorities never actually intended to photograph the boy's erect penis, but threatened him with the scenario to coerce him into pleading guilty to avoid it. 

The Associated Press cleared up some of the confusion today:

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... 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. 

 So a judge evidently signed off on a warrant to photograph the induced erection of a teenage boy! If ever there were a reason short of fabricating evidence to mount a recall campaign against a judge and a district attorney's office this would be it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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