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Lambda Legal seeks reversal on some sex-sting convictions in Palm Springs

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Lambda Legal argued before the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of Riverside County on Friday that the June 2009 sex sting operation in the Warm Sands neighborhood of Palm Springs constituted discriminatory enforcement of the laws and asked the Court to reverse several convictions resulting from that operation.

Lambda Legal had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case earlier this year, and was granted permission by the court to present oral argument at the hearing.

“The police let heterosexual couples off scot-free. But gay men were rounded up and charged with crimes that would have required lifetime sex offender registration,” Lambda Legal staff attorney Peter Renn said.

“This sting operation was conceived and implemented specifically to target gay men, notwithstanding several reports of lewd conduct by different-sex couples at multiple locations in Palm Springs.”

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News broke this story about the sex sting and the allegations that gay men were unfairly singled out for arrest.

Lambda Legal argued Friday 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 “coc*suckers,” and the chief of police, who had chosen to ride along for part of the operation, called the suspects “filthy mother*uckers.”

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 police chief 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.

“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. It was like launching a missile to kill a fly, and then ignoring similar conduct by heterosexual couples.”

The case is In re Warm Sands Cases.