"She looked old enough."

Men who use that line to defend themselves after being caught having sex with underage girls typically go to jail for a long, long time. "She looked old enough" isn't an acceptable defense for groping and exposing yourself to a teenager--not unless you're a King County Sheriff. Undercover detective Bryan Pacey looked at a 15-year-old girl, decided she "looked old enough," and proceeded to touch her breast; the girl touched his penis after he exposed himself.

Pacey's incident report--a seemingly routine prostitution bust at South 272nd and Pacific Highway South in Kent last August--outraged local public defender Jill Malat. "In order to arrest this girl for a misdemeanor [prostitution]," Malat says, "the officer committed a felony--child molestation." Washington Criminal Code defines child molestation in the third degree this way: "A person is guilty of child molestation in the third degree when the person has... sexual contact with another who is at least 14 years old but less than 16...."

Malat, a public defender at the Central Area's Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons (SCRAP), is bugged by what she sees as the blatant hypocrisy of our legal system. After all, the law demands that everyone from 7-Eleven clerks to movie ushers to club bouncers determine a young person's age; you'd think a detective would be able to tell a 15-year-old girl from an 18-year-old. More important, if any adult male had sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl, his guestimation about her age wouldn't work as a credible defense.

"If another person did this, they'd be charged with third-degree child molestation," Malat says. It's a felony that brings six to 12 months in jail and requires the felon to register as a sex offender for 10 years. "But because the state decides who does and doesn't get arrested, this officer goes free."

(The King County Sheriff's Office would not allow us to speak to Detective Pacey.)

There are two distinct questions about the Pacey case. First, should a police officer be able to commit a felony in order to make an arrest? Second, should a male police officer be able to commit this specific felony--child molestation?

As to the first question, King County's standard operating procedure for vice cops is straightforward. The undercover guidelines say, "Detectives conducting undercover operations in vice investigations are authorized to employ reasonable means necessary to adapt to current criminal trends associated with prostitution and gambling to investigate criminal activity. Such conduct may include, but is not limited to, disrobing, touching, massage, and consumption of alcohol."

More galling to Malat than a double standard that allows cops to break the law is the plain fact that Detective Pacey went so far with a teenager. "I wanted to send a copy of the police report to his wife," she says.

Pacey's report is chilling reading: "Once inside the car... I asked her how old she was because she looked young. She said she was 19 years old. She looked old enough to be 18 so I proceeded with the investigation as if she was an adult. I asked her if I could get a 'half-and-half.' She said she didn't want to talk until I proved I wasn't a cop. I asked her what she wanted me to do. She exposed her breast and said, 'Touch it.' I reached over and touched her exposed breast with the back of my hand. She then asked me to expose myself. I unzipped my pants and exposed myself. She reached down and touched my penis briefly. I asked her if she wanted the money now or later. She said, 'Now.' I gave her $200.... She put the seat back and got out a condom. She started to pull down her pants when I showed her my badge and told her that I was a detective with the Sheriff's Office. I asked her for my money back, which she gave me. She started to cry when I told her she was under arrest for prostitution."

King County Sheriff's Office spokesman (and a former Pacific Highway vice cop himself) Sergeant John Urquhart says, "As I read the case report, there is not a vice detective out there--including myself--[who] would go as far as [he] did with a juvenile." However, Urquhart adds, without seeing the girl, it's hard to know if she appeared to be of age. In the case that the prostitute may have appeared older than she was, Urquhart condones Pacey's behavior. "That's not beyond our policy with adults," he explains, "touching with the back of the hand and exposing themselves." (Urquhart left out the part about allowing a 15-year-old girl to touch the detective's penis.)

Urquhart concludes, "If [Malat] really thinks the detective committed a felony, what the hell is she doing calling The Stranger--as opposed to reporting it to our Internal Investigations Unit? Is she just rising up in moral indignation because she doesn't believe police should entrap hookers? And remember, none of this was entrapment."

Malat has a simple response: "I don't think cops should be molesting little girls."

josh@thestranger.com

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