By Lenore T. Adkins/Special to the AFRO
The American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. on July 18 filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 39-year-old Black man who alleges a D.C. police officer grabbed his genitals and stuck his fingers between his buttocks in a stop-and-frisk that went viral last summer.
The lawsuit alleges that on September 27, 2017, Officer Sean Lojacono performed an unconstitutional and highly intrusive bodily search of M.B. Cottingham, an ice cream vendor, without a warrant, reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
Screenshot (Soup Visions YouTube Account)
Police conducted the search in the Bellevue neighborhood in Southwest by I-295 after the life-long D.C. resident and his friends were standing on the sidewalk and talking about plans to celebrate his birthday. Two police cars, including one unmarked car, pulled up next to them over an open container of alcohol and officers asked the men if they had any weapons.
When the men said they didn’t, Officer Lojacono, who is White, asked Cottingham what was in his sock. At that point, Cottingham pulled out a small, legal amount of marijuana and consented to Officer Lojacono patting him down. But instead, the lawsuit alleges, the officer jammed his fingers between Cottingham’s buttocks through his sweatpants, sticking his thumb in his anus and grabbing his scrotum.
After Cottingham flinched and complained about the search, Officer Lojacono and another officer handcuffed him and continued the same invasive search in the same region two more times, the suit alleges.
“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life,” Cottingham said in a statement. “It’s bad enough that members of my community are stopped and frisked by the police all the time … but this officer treated me like I’m not even a human being.”
The complaint says Officer Lojacono didn’t locate any weapons or contraband, nor did police cite Cottingham and his friends for the open container of alcohol. Moreover, Officer Lojacono appeared to taunt Cottingham has he drove off in the marked squad car, yelling over the loudspeaker “How ya’ll doing world star? How ya’ll doing world star? (inaudible) free the work force!”
On of Cottingham’s friends captured a portion of the search on video and Cottingham interpreted “world star” as a reference to the video.
Cottingham, a father of three, endured physical discomfort in the areas that were probed for weeks after the search — sitting down for long periods of time was uncomfortable and he also experienced discomfort during bowel movements. To this day, Cottingham suffers from ongoing anxiety, depression and fear of being in public and the feeling that he was stripped of his dignity, the lawsuit alleges.
He did not work on his ice cream truck for a month after the search due to the trauma stemming from the search, resulting in a loss of income, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit argues that Officer Lojacono violated Cottingham’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
“This shocking and unjustified invasion of Mr. Cottingham’s privacy was a violation of his constitutional rights and basic dignity,” Scott Michelman, ACLU-DC Senior Staff Attorney, who is representing Cottingham, said in a statement. “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.”
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police Department does not comment on pending litigation, MPD Public Affairs Specialist Alaina Gertz told the AFRO via email.
But about a month before the lawsuit was filed, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said at a June 12 D.C. Council hearing that he saw the video of the search and said, “It looked like it was an inappropriate touching by the officer.” He added that Officer Lojacono had been disciplined but remains on active duty with the police department.
The ACLU D.C. filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Cottingham is demanding a jury trial and seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as court costs and attorney’s fees.