Lambda Legal Argues Police Sting Unfairly Targeted Gay Men in Palm Springs
"While reports of unlawful public conduct were not limited to gay men, the police department's four-night covert sting operation was. That does not happen by accident."
(Palm Springs, CA, April 20, 2012) – Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of Riverside County late yesterday asking the Court to reverse several convictions from a June 2009 sting operation in the Warm Sands neighborhood of Palm Springs because the arrests were the result of discriminatory enforcement of the laws.
“Notwithstanding reports of open and notorious lewd conduct by different-sex couples at multiple locations in Palm Springs, the police came down like a ton of bricks in just one place with an elaborate and aggressive operation to target only gay men,” Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Peter Renn said. “While reports of unlawful public conduct were not limited to gay men, the police department’s four-night covert sting operation was. That does not happen by accident.”
In its brief, Lambda Legal argues that, although police also learned of lewd conduct by different-sex couples at a local water park and parking garage, they failed to respond in a similar fashion as they did in Warm Sands, which included the use of covert surveillance.
The operation used undercover male police officers, who approached male suspects and attempted to elicit conduct for which a punishment of lifetime sex offender registration could be imposed. During the operation, the sergeant in charge of the operation was caught on tape referring to “cocksuckers,” and the chief of police, who had chosen to ride along for part of the operation, called the suspects “filthy motherfuckers.” After the operation, which cost several thousand taxpayer dollars and involved the use of night-vision video recording equipment, the police made a special request that prosecutors not show the defendants any leniency and instead prosecute them for indecent exposure, which would require lifetime sex offender registration. A total of nineteen men were arrested. After details of the operation became public, the chief of police retired amid controversy, and the city agreed to adopt new police practices, including an emphasis on surveillance over decoy operations and training on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. However, the district attorney continued to prosecute the defendants.
“This isn’t about a right to engage in unlawful public conduct. It is about the right to equal treatment. Our system of justice depends on the even-handed enforcement of the law.” Renn said. “The response of law enforcement here was wholly disproportionate to the alleged problem and unlike anything police have ever directed toward lewd conduct involving different-sex couples.”
Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.