San Diego within rights to close strip joint, judge rules

San Diego within rights to close strip joint, judge rules
A judge has tentatively ruled that the city of San Diego did not abuse its authority in revoking the nude entertainment permit of Cheetahs, a strip joint once at the heart of a political scandal. (Cheetahs)

The city of San Diego did not act improperly when it revoked the nude entertainment license of a strip joint that was at the heart of a political scandal that led to the indictment of three City Council members, a judge has ruled.

Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp, in a tentative ruling issued Thursday, said that in the past three years there were "numerous and continuing violations" of municipal code rules against nude dancers getting too close to patrons at Cheetahs Totally Nude establishment.


On Friday, Trapp made the ruling final, setting the stage for an appeal.

Dancers at the club continually violated the "six-foot, no-touch and no-fondling rules," Trapp ruled in rejecting a claim by the club owner Suzanne Coe. The six-foot rule is meant to keep the dancers away from patrons.

Cheetahs has remained open as Coe appealed the city's decision to revoke the club's nude entertainment permit.

Cheetahs' attorney, Dan Gilleon, expressed disappointment at the ruling.

"This is a 1st Amendment case, which means the city code was obligated to be specific regarding its requirement," he said. "To say Cheetahs failed to act 'reasonably' is, at best, unconstitutionally vague, and far from specific."

City Atty. Jan Goldsmith disputed that assertion.

"Judge Trapp decided this case on the law and facts, which is something judges are supposed to do," he said. "Too many lawyers and pundits argue hype, which good judges ignore."

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman applauded the ruling as a vindication of the department's vice cops and the city codes meant to keep nude dancers and patrons apart.

"The purpose of these regulations is to prevent prostitution, lewd acts, money laundering, organized crime and the deterioration of our neighborhoods," she said.

In the mid-2000s, Cheetahs, under different ownership, was the hub of a political scandal.

After a two-year undercover investigation by the FBI and the U.S. attorney, council members Michael Zucchet, Ralph Inzunza, and Charles Lewis were indicted in 2003.

The trio was charged with receiving campaign contributions from Cheetahs then-owner and his associates in exchange for promising to work to repeal the local laws that are meant to keep naked dancers at a distance from patrons.

The investigation included wiretaps, an informant wearing a wire, and a raid on City Hall offices. The then-owner of Cheetahs, Michael Galardi, pleaded guilty and testified that he was seeking to bribe the three council members.

In 2005, Zucchet and Inzunza were convicted, although Zucchet's conviction was later set aside by an appeals court and the federal prosecutors opted to drop the case against him. Lewis died before trial.


Inzunza's appeals were denied and he was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison. Zucchet was acting mayor when he was convicted and forced from office.

According to Trapp's ruling, Coe has been the owner of Cheetahs for a decade, which means she did not own the establishment during the investigation and trial of the three council members.

Coe does not live in San Diego and was not in position to provide adequate supervision of the dancers, according to Trapp's ruling.

Also, the dancers paid a portion of their tips to staff members, providing an incentive for them to allow conduct banned by the municipal code, according to Trapp's ruling.

In a separate legal case, Gilleon asserts that vice officers harassed and mistreated dancers at Cheetahs under the guise of investigating potential violations of the Municipal Code.

He has filed a lawsuit on their behalf against the city and police chief alleging that the dancers' civil rights were violated; the lawsuit is pending, with the city attorney seeking to have it thrown out.

Coe argued that the revocation of the license was in retaliation for the civil rights lawsuit which was already filed. But Trapp found that, "other than the timing, there is no evidence" of retaliation.