Written by: Michael Phillips
Shocking Betrayal of Trust
In a harrowing case that has shocked the community, former Portsmouth Police Department officer Cleshaun A. Cox, 31, has been sentenced to nearly two decades in federal prison for the on-duty sexual assault of a 17-year-old high school student in 2019. Cox had previously pleaded guilty to charges of carnal knowledge and abduction in state court, receiving a five-year prison sentence related to the assault.
Lengthy Legal Process
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia disclosed that Cox spent approximately 4.5 years in state custody awaiting his federal sentence. The additional federal sentencing stems from Cox's violation of the teenager's civil rights by forcibly sexually assaulting her while on duty.
“There are no words to describe Officer Cox’s breach of our public trust,” remarked Jessica D. Aber, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “The pain that he inflicted on the victim and the community is incalculable, but I hope this resolution can bring some measure of peace to those affected.” Federal public defender Suzanne Katchmar, who represented Cox, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Incident Unfolds
Followed Home after a Noise Complaint: On May 27, 2019, Cox and a senior police officer responded to a noise complaint involving the 17-year-old and her friend in a car at a parking lot in Portsmouth. During the early hours of Memorial Day, the senior officer instructed the teen to drive home, as she had not broken any laws except the city’s curfew.
Cox's Coercive Actions
Unbeknownst to the senior officer, Cox proceeded to follow the teenager in his marked Portsmouth Police Department car. When the teen and her 18-year-old friend stopped for gas, Cox pulled up and activated his vehicle’s blue police lights—neglecting to activate his body-worn camera, according to prosecutors. Cox then threatened to ticket the 17-year-old for "numerous minor offenses" with the intention of coercing her into a sexual encounter. The teen, fearing consequences, drove home with Cox trailing behind in his police car. Cox is accused of manipulating the situation to get the teenager alone, following her friend’s departure.
Assault and Immediate Aftermath
After dropping her friend off, Cox directed the teen to drive to a parking lot, presenting her with a coercive "deal" of engaging in different sexual acts to avoid being ticketed, according to sentencing documents. Despite her objections, the teen complied out of fear and belief that she had no other choice. Cox then drove her to an isolated location and sexually assaulted her in the patrol car. The courageous teenager reported the assault immediately, leading to Cox providing false information during an interview with Portsmouth police detectives.
Sentencing and Legal Debate
The government argued for a 20-year prison sentence for Cox ahead of his federal sentencing, emphasizing the severity of his abuse of authority and targeting a minor victim. Cox, facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, requested the court to consider no sentence longer than the minimum. Katchmar, Cox's defense attorney, acknowledged his betrayal of the community but argued that a 15-year sentence would be excessive, highlighting the substantial consequences of the legal process itself. Cox must register as a sex offender under federal law as part of his sentencing.