Police Sting Unfairly Targeted Gay Men

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April 20, 2012

Lambda Legal is urging a California court to reverse several convictions from a 2009 sting operation in the Warm Sands neighborhood of Palm Springs, Calif., because the arrests were the result of discriminatory enforcement of the laws.

In a friend-of-the-court brief with the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of Riverside County, 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.

That operation involved the use of night-vision video recording equipment and cost several thousand taxpayer dollars. Undercover male police officers 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.”

The police then 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 19 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 LGBT people. However, the district attorney continued to prosecute the defendants.

Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Peter Renn says:

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.

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.

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. 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.

Read Lambda Legal's brief.

Read more about the case.