Judge slams gay sex stings by Long Beach police, calling them discriminatory

A Los Angeles County judge on Friday strongly criticized the Long Beach Police Department's practice of conducting sting operations against gay men cruising for companionship, saying the department’s tactics were tantamount to discrimination.

Superior Court Judge Halim Dhanidina made the remarks in Long Beach while invalidating the 2014 arrest of Rory Moroney for lewd conduct and indecent exposure.

Moroney was ensnared by an undercover vice team that had set up a sting operation in a men’s bathroom at Recreation Park in October 2014. After receiving what he believed to be flirtatious signals from an undercover detective, Moroney was arrested for exposing himself, said Bruce Nickerson, his attorney.

The decision in the closely watched case was celebrated by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights activists across Los Angeles County. Many said they were troubled by Long Beach’s tactics. West Hollywood Councilman John Duran, an attorney who is openly gay and served as an expert witness in the case, said the police actions “came out of the era when homosexuality was criminal; this is kind of a leftover from the last century.”

Moroney began sobbing as soon as the judge finished reading his decision, dabbing his eyes with a tissue before hugging one of his attorneys.

“It was really hard to ... come out and be the voice, but I had to do it because I believe that Long Beach is discriminating against gay men,” he said outside court.

Moroney, 50, of Long Beach, would have been required to register as a sex offender if convicted.

It was unclear whether there would be an appeal, or if the ruling would prompt changes to Long Beach police practices. City Prosecutor Doug Haubert said in a statement that his office would review the ruling before commenting.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, the city’s first openly gay elected official, was not available for comment Friday.

In a statement, the Long Beach Police Department called the ruling “unexpected,” but said the agency would evaluate its response to complaints of lewd conduct in the future. The department said its vice unit mostly focuses on human trafficking investigations rather than lewd conduct stings, and does not engage in biased policing.

“The Police Department actively engages with our LGBTQ community and collaborates with community leaders to provide ongoing training to LBPD employees,” Police Chief Robert Luna said. “We are 100% committed to civil rights and equality for all people, including the LGBTQ community ... and our department has many openly gay and lesbian employees who are a critical part of our team.”

Dhanidina said Long Beach's vice tactics are discriminatory because the squad uses only male officers as undercover decoys in lewd conduct stings. Several officers who testified at an evidentiary hearing this month all said they had arrested only male suspects for lewd conduct while working as vice officers, the judge said.

The judge agreed with Nickerson’s argument that the detective smiled and nodded at Moroney several times during their exchange, and Moroney had reason to believe the detective was making a sexual advance

“The presence and tactics of the decoy officers actually caused the crimes to occur,” Dhanidina said.

Dhanidina also rejected prosecutors' arguments that Long Beach based its policing tactics on citizen complaints about lewd conduct, saying the agency provided little to no evidence of such complaints at men's public restrooms where the bulk of the stings took place.

The department “intentionally targeted men who engaged in homosexual sex,” Dhanidina said.

Nickerson, a longtime civil rights attorney who is openly gay and has won similar cases throughout California, said Friday's ruling

“should send a message to police in the rest of California not to do these kinds of ridiculous, silly, sting operations.”

Stephanie Loftin, who is also representing Moroney, described Long Beach as one of the “last bastions” using undercover decoy tactics to arrest gay men. Many police agencies in California have stopped using such tactics in the face of lawsuits and public backlash, she said.

Scores of gay men have been forced to register as sex offenders in California after they were convicted of lewd conduct under similar circumstances, a practice that ruins lives and unfairly lumps such men in with convicted rapists and child molesters, activists said.

“Those officers and detectives aren’t saving lives,” said Jim Key, a spokesman for the Los Angeles LGBT Center. “They’re destroying them by branding innocent men as sex offenders.”

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT and @haileybranson for more Southern California news.

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

8:11 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with minor editing.

6:27 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the Long Beach Police Department.

4:33 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from LGBT activists and Long Beach city officials.

This article was first published at 1:01 p.m.

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