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Lambda Legal alleges police discrimination in Palm Springs gay busts

BY ROB SALERNO – Just weeks after the annual White Party brought thousands of gay men to Palm Springs, California, Lambda Legal has filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Superior Court of Riverside County to reverse the convictions of 19 gay men charged with indecent exposure in a four-day sting operation in the city in June 2009.

Lambda alleges that the police applied the law in a discriminatory manner, by cracking down only on sites where gay men were known to cruise while ignoring known spots where heterosexuals would go to have sex in public places. 

Police tactics in the case involved the use of night-vision surveillance, as well as the use of hunky undercover police decoys who would attempt to entice men into committing lewd acts by skulking around parking lots shirtless in tight jeans. According to Lambda’s briefs, “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.’"

When details came to light, the chief of police resigned in shame and the force was mandated to undergo sensitivity training on queer issues. But the prosecutions went ahead, with the police lobbying the prosecution not to offer any deals to the accused, but instead to push for charges that would lead to lifetime sex-offender designations.

"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,” says Lambda Legal staff attorney Peter Renn in a press release. “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."

In addition to hosting the annual White Party, Palm Springs markets itself as the gayest city in America, with an estimated gay population of more than 50 percent.

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