District sued for ‘illegal’ search of student’s cell phone

A Pennsylvania student claims images on her cell phone were illegally seized and turned over to prosecutors.
A Pennsylvania student claims images on her cell phone were illegally seized and turned over to prosecutors.

A Pennsylvania school district that was at the center of a highly publicized “sexting” case was sued May 20 by a teenager who claims her principal confiscated her cell phone, found nude images she had taken of herself, and turned it over to prosecutors.

Tunkhannock Area High School Principal Gregory Ellsworth illegally searched the 17-year-old’s phone in January 2009, even though she intended the racy photos to be “seen only herself and, perhaps, her long-time boyfriend,” according to the federal lawsuit.

It says the principal gave the phone to George Skumanick Jr., at the time the Wyoming County district attorney, who threatened to file felony child pornography charges against the girl unless she took a class on sexual violence.

“I was absolutely horrified and humiliated to learn that school officials, men in [the] DA’s office, and police had seen naked pictures of me,” said the plaintiff, now 19 and identified in court documents only by the initials N.N. She graduated in 2009.

“Those pictures were extremely private and not meant for anyone else’s eyes. What they did is the equivalent of spying on me through my bedroom window,” she said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is representing her.

The suit, filed in Scranton, seeks unspecified damages against Ellsworth, the district, the county, prosecutors, and a detective. It also seeks the destruction of any images still in the possession of law-enforcement officials.

District Superintendent Michael J. Healey, the school district’s lawyer, and current District Attorney Jeff Mitchell all declined to comment May 20, saying they had not seen the suit. Ellsworth and Skumanick did not immediately return phone messages left by the Associated Press.

The district in rural northeastern Pennsylvania was at the center of the nation’s first criminal case involving sexting–the practice of sending explicit photos via cell phone text messaging–to reach a federal appeals court.

The court ruled in March that prosecutors could not criminally charge a teenage girl who appeared in a photo similar to the one involved in the latest lawsuit.

The Tunkhannock lawsuit is the second case in which a student or former student has sued his or her school for what the ACLU calls an illegal search and seizure of a cell phone. Last fall, the group filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of a middle school student in Mississippi, and that case is still pending.

Both cases could help decide whether school officials have the right to examine a student’s cell phone or other personal technology device without probable cause.


Tunkhannock Area School District

American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania

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