WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia today filed a lawsuit against Metropolitan Police Department Officer Sean Lojacono for an unconstitutional and exceedingly invasive bodily search of M.B. Cottingham, a 39-year-old male District resident, without a warrant, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause.
“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life,” said Cottingham, a lifelong D.C. resident who makes his living as an ice cream vendor. “It’s bad enough that members of my community are stopped and frisked by the police all the time. I’ve been frisked many times and even beaten by police. But this officer treated me like I’m not even a human being.”
The incident occurred on September 27, 2017, in the Bellevue neighborhood in Southwest near I-295. Cottingham and his friends had gathered on a public sidewalk and were discussing plans to celebrate his birthday that evening when two police cars, one unmarked, pulled up alongside them. The officers jumped out of their cars asked the men if they had any weapons; they responded they did not.
Officer Lojacono asked Cottingham what he had in his sock, and Cottingham pulled out a small, legal amount of marijuana. Seeking to avoid a confrontation, Cottingham offered to let Officer Lojacono pat him down, but Officer Lojacono far exceeded the scope of a standard pat-down for weapons by jamming his fingers between Cottingham’s buttocks, sticking his thumb in his anus, and grabbing his scrotum, all through his sweatpants. After Cottingham flinched and verbally protested, Officer Lojacono and another officer handcuffed him and proceeded to continue the intrusive search in the same manner and area for several more seconds.
“This shocking and unjustified invasion of Mr. Cottingham’s privacy was a violation of his constitutional rights and basic dignity,” said Scott Michelman, ACLU-DC Senior Staff Attorney, who is representing Cottingham. “When a routine frisk turns into a search this invasive, the officer is not pursuing a legitimate law enforcement purpose but simply degrading someone and asserting his own power.”
At a D.C. Council hearing about community policing and stop and frisk on July 12, 2018, MPD Chief Peter Newsham acknowledged he had seen the video depicting the search. He stated: “It looked like it was an inappropriate touching by the officer.”
For weeks following the incident, Cottingham experienced physical discomfort in the areas that were probed and grabbed. In addition, he suffers ongoing anxiety, depression, and fear of being in public; he was unable to work for a month following the incident.
Today’s lawsuit, Cottingham v. Lojacono, asserts that Officer Lojacono violated Cottingham’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The lawsuit follows another ACLU-DC case, Black Lives Matter DC v. Bowser, filed in May over the District’s failure to collect comprehensive data about police stops and frisks as legally required since 2016 by the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act.
“What happened to Mr. Cottingham is part of a larger pattern of aggressive stops and frisks that we hear about regularly from community members,” said Michelman, who is also counsel in the NEAR Act litigation. “MPD’s failure to comply with D.C. law about data collection denies the Council and the public the information needed to facilitate meaningful oversight over police practices. As a result, abusive searches like the one Mr. Cottingham experienced are more likely to occur.”
Cottingham’s case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The complaint can be found here: https://www.acludc.org/en/cases/cottingham-v-lojacono
Video of the search can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXILS80IyyU