DES MOINES, Iowa – A county prosecutor in Iowa who threatened to charge a 14-year-old girl with sexual exploitation of a minor after she sent suggestive photos of herself to a boy at school agreed Thursday to drop the case after the girl's family sued him for violating her constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection.
The girl's parents, who sought to keep their names confidential to protect her identity, released a statement through the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which represented the family in the lawsuit, saying Marion County Attorney Ed Bull had misused his position of authority to bully their daughter and impose "his own sexist moral standards" on her.
"We tried to work with him, but he wouldn't budge and insisted that our daughter admit guilt to a crime that she didn't commit," they said. "It's frightening to see the government step in with this sort of dangerous overreach and presume to play the role of parent."
Bull had told the girl, identified only as Nancy Doe, that to avoid prosecution and a possible prison sentence she must sign an admission of guilt; enroll in a pre-trial diversion program involving community service; attend classes intended to teach teens not to engage in "sexting" and have no access to her phone or laptop for a set period of time.
The family's lawsuit filed November in federal court in Des Moines asked a judge to stop Bull from filing criminal charges against her.
Rita Bettis, the ACLU of Iowa legal director, said her organization challenged Bull's actions on constitutional free speech and equal protection grounds, and sought to have the court affirm the parents' fundamental right to raise their child without undue interference from the state.
"As a policy matter, it's bewildering that a county attorney would threaten to put a child in jail or prison or place her on the sex offender registry for taking a picture of herself," Bettis said.
Attorneys representing the girl and Bull filed an agreement to dismiss the case Thursday. The ACLU said the county agreed to pay $40,000 in attorney fees.
Bull was unrepentant.
"As county attorney, it is my job to pursue justice. Nothing can or will change that," he said. "I will put the ACLU's dismissal papers in my file and go right back to work serving my community."
The girl sent two photos to the boy in the spring of 2016 via Snapchat, a mobile messaging app. The photos showed no nudity. In one, she is wearing a sports bra and shorts and in the other she's in shorts with her hair covering her breasts. The boy apparently shared them with other students and they were discovered among many others during a sexting investigation at Knoxville High School, a school with about 600 students in Knoxville, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) southeast of Des Moines.
Bull said he hoped the children involved "could have had a chance to learn from their mistake, without life-altering consequences, including the potential of being labeled a sex offender."
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