A district judge in eastern Colorado on Wednesday dismissed charges against a high school principal who faced up to 12 years in prison after he investigated a tip that students were sexting, closing an unusual case that split the town of Brush.
Bradley Bass, 32, acted in good faith “although misguided, to be sure,” when he found images on several students’ phones and saved them on his work cellphone as evidence, Morgan County District Court Judge Charles M. Hobbs wrote in his ruling.
While Bass violated Colorado law by simply preserving the images, Hobbs ruled that there was “no evidence of deceit or concealment” as he notified law enforcement about the images. He also wrote that Bass had “no improper motive.”
There was no evidence that Bass viewed the images after storing them in a confidential file on the school’s computer system, the judge wrote.
While those precautions weren’t a defense to the charges against Bass, they offered “good faith” evidence he believed he was doing his job, the judge found.
In September, Hobbs threw out charges against Bass’ codefendant and supervisor, Scott Hodgson, finding that the administrator had acted in good faith and thought he was complying with district policy.
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No one had ever accused Bass of bad intent, but under Colorado law, knowingly possessing any explicit image of kids is child pornography, no matter the intent. Law enforcement officers investigating are one of the few exceptions to the rule.
The judge’s decision to reject the prosecution’s “misguided claims” did not come as a surprise, said Bass’ attorney, Michael Faye.
Still, the false accusations by the police department and prosecution tarnished Bass’ reputation and caused a stigma the principal will carry for the rest of his life, Faye said, calling their actions “the most egregious abuse of prosecutorial discretion” he has seen in his 20 years of practicing law.
“The level of prosecutorial incompetence in the Thirteenth Judicial District is truly something to behold and is quite concerning,” Faye said Wednesday.
But 13th Judicial District Attorney Travis Sides said the judge’s finding that Bass violated state law by preserving the images supported his action to file charges against the school administrator.
“By the judge’s own ruling, he admits that our prosecution was legally valid and legally appropriate,” Sides told The Colorado Sun.
He disagreed with the judge that Bass acted in good faith and said he did not believe Bass was justified in keeping the nude photos of teenagers on his phone indefinitely.
“From the beginning and it still troubles me now: We had a school administrator that knowingly kept nude images of a juvenile student on his phone. So in other words, he could pull up that image whenever he wanted to, anytime a day or night,” Sides said.
In his ruling, Hobbs acknowledged that the images remained on Bass’ phone after he transferred them to the school server, but said none of the testimony suggested illegal intent.
About a month after transferring the photos to the server, Bass testified in court that he realized he had not deleted the photos from his work phone. He told police and gave both his personal and work phones, along with his passwords, to law enforcement for the day.
Bass testified that no one had access to his work phone in that time frame. A forensic analysis requested by police showed that no information related to the case was found on Bass’ personal phone or computer and that the photos on the school server were not accessed after Bass put them there.
The parents of the girl who was depicted in the images have supported Bass in how he handled the case and said they oppose the charges.
Sides said he does not intend to appeal the ruling.
The judge’s findings closed a case that garnered national attention about school sexting, which has become increasingly common in high schools across the U.S., with legal risks for anyone possessing, exchanging or mishandling the images.
Colorado has no mandatory training on investigating school sexting. But if a judge determined Bass had violated the law, he could have been branded a sex offender.
Some states, including Colorado, have laws that say teenagers who consensually sext shouldn’t face criminal charges. But few states, if any, carve out exceptions for adults who possess the nude photos without ill intent. And experts say that few, if any, states require teachers and administrators to receive training about the legal liability they could face while investigating a report of sexting.