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Gays Call Police Sting Discriminatory Santa Ana decoy operation netted 56 arrests at park with long history of complaints. Defense says lewd heterosexual acts aren’t targeted.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Santa Ana police conducted a six-month sting operation in which undercover officers posing as gay men loitered near public restrooms seeking sexual liaisons from other men, who were later arrested.

A total of 56 people were charged as part of the operation, which has prompted a legal challenge from a noted gay-rights attorney and the Orange County public defender’s office, who want the remaining cases thrown out. They call the use of decoys discriminatory, claiming the department is unfairly focusing on gays who frequent Santiago Park in North Santa Ana.

“They are targeting the areas where gays” gather, said attorney Bruce W. Nickerson.

Residents who live around the park have long complained about gay cruising. On Tuesday, both city officials and police strongly defended the actions, saying it was the only way to clean up the park.

“We owe it to the community to keep our parks free and clear of any illegal or lewd activities, especially parks where there are women and children in view of areas where these acts are occurring,” Santa Ana Police Sgt. Raul Luna said.

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Councilman Brett Franklin said the sting was developed in January after he approached City Manager David N. Ream about the cruising problem. Franklin said many nearby residents urged him to ask the police to take aggressive action.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said community activist Mel Vernon. “It’s been a serious problem in the park for over 10 years. . . . This should have been done years ago.”

Officers worked the park through June, secretly videotaping the encounters and eventually presenting their evidence to the district attorney’s office. Most of the defendants have already pleaded guilty, but a new lawsuit seeks to toss out the charges against the remaining defendants.

Defense attorneys are citing appellate court decisions that place strict standards on such sting operations. Courts have already thrown out charges stemming from similar stings elsewhere in California, including Bakersfield and Concord.

Attorneys for the nine suspects contend the decoy operations are unfair because they target homosexuals while Santa Ana police make little effort to crack down on heterosexual activity in their parks.

A defense motion asserts that heterosexual activity in public is more pervasive in Santa Ana than is homosexual conduct. To support their claim, they note that two-thirds of the city’s lewd conduct arrests in 1999--excluding decoys--were for heterosexual activities.

“All groups need to be treated fairly. If you have two groups committing the same type of crimes, they should be treated in the same fashion,” said Deputy Public Defender Lee Blumen, who has teamed with private lawyers in the case.

Santa Ana police maintain they are not targeting gays.

An Orange County judge earlier this month rejected the argument of discriminatory enforcement. The attorneys have asked a Superior Court appeals panel to temporarily stop the prosecutions until their appeal is heard.

Defense attorneys have contended for decades that California’s lewd act law is used disproportionately against homosexuals.

A 1979 California Supreme Court opinion placed new restrictions on enforcement of the law, requiring prosecutors to prove that the suspect knew of witnesses “likely to be offended” by the lewd act.

An undercover officer trying to lure a gay man into a lewd act cannot be presumed to be offended by the conduct, attorneys for the Santa Ana suspects said.

Police in Laguna Beach, which has a large gay community, stopped using undercover decoys in public parks 20 years ago, said Police Chief Jim Spreine.

Decoys were often challenged in court as entrapment and also required extensive resources, Spreine said.

The department, he said, decided that officers could better spend their time by stepping up patrols in areas where complaints were made. That switch, Spreine said, has also helped the department forge close ties with the city’s gay community.

“Where we had problems where gays were hanging out doing illicit sex, we put uniformed officers there and patrolled those areas more. . . . Our gay community was very supportive of that.”

Fullerton police have used undercover officers as decoys at Hillcrest Park for many years, making 20 to 30 arrests per year in periodic sting operations without complaint from the gay community, officials said.


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