WSJ: Port Authority Bathroom Arrests Spur Lawsuit
TUESDAY, MARCH 28, 2017

The Wall Street Journal reporter, Corinne Ramey, writes about the lawsuit The Legal Aid Society and Winston & Strawn LLP have filed in federal court against the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) charging discrimination, targeting, and false arrests of men using restrooms within the Port Authority Bus Terminal.




The Wall Street Journal
Port Authority Bathroom Arrests Spur Lawsuit
By Corinne Ramey
March 27, 2017

A federal lawsuit filed Monday in Manhattan accuses the Port Authority Police Department of wrongly arresting men on charges of public lewdness after they used the bathroom in its Midtown bus terminal.

The suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges plainclothes officers target men whom they perceive as gay in an effort to boost quality-of life arrest statistics. These officers see men at urinals, sometimes by peering around the privacy dividers, detain them and accuse them of masturbating in public, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan by attorneys at public-defender organization the Legal Aid Society and private firm Winston & Strawn LLP against the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, its police department and some individual officers. “They have deployed resources and police assets in a way that is, in our view, unconstitutional and preposterous,” said Thomas Lane, a partner at Winston & Strawn.

A Port Authority spokesman declined to comment because of pending litigation. The three officers named in the suit couldn’t be reached for comment.

Port Authority officers also patrol airports, the PATH train system, bridges and other regional transit facilities.

Bobby Egbert, a spokesman for the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association who formerly worked at the bus terminal, said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit but knew through his experience that some people used the public bathrooms to engage in illegal behavior. He said officers, when making arrests, have to make split-second decisions based on their observations.

The department didn’t issue quotas but provided guidelines to officers, Mr. Egbert said. “They’re not looking for numbers, they’re looking for you to address the problem,” he added.

Public-lewdness arrests at areas patrolled by the Port Authority Police Department in Manhattan, the majority of which are at the bus terminal, have declined in recent years, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office. There were approximately 80 arrests in 2014, 30 in 2015, 25 in 2016 and 10 so far this year, the office said.

Kimberly Forte, supervising attorney of Legal Aid’s LGBT law and policy initiative, said some men charged with such offenses feel pressure to take a plea due to the embarrassment of having to fight them in court.

“You read these complaints and they’re almost verbatim,” said Ms. Forte. “It’s pretty remarkable that all of these men were doing the exact same thing and arrested by the same officers.”

The suit names two plaintiffs, but the lawyers believe they will find dozens of others. One, Cornell Holden, 30 years old, was arrested in 2014 at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Mr. Cornell, a baker, had just finished an overnight shift at Panera Bread and was headed to a cake store downtown to pick up supplies, he said.

While he was at a bus terminal urinal, he saw an officer peer around the privacy divider. Then, officers arrested him and took him to the station.

“He said, ‘I saw you manipulating your penis and it was erect,’ ”Mr. Holden said the officer told him.

After Mr. Holden was arrested, he heard other men congratulating the officer and calling him “the gay whisperer,” according to the complaint.

Mr. Holden pleaded not guilty to public lewdness and exposure of a person, “because I wasn’t,” he said. After several court appearances the case was dismissed.

Another plaintiff, Miguel Mejia, was arrested after using a bus terminal bathroom in 2014 and charged with public lewdness, according to the complaint. He was found not guilty after a bench trial.

Wrongful public-lewdness arrests by Port Authority officers have been the subject of other civil-rights lawsuits. In one case, Alejandro Martinez was arrested in 2000 outside the men’s restroom at the PATH station at the World Trade Center. His lawyers said he was one of seven men arrested in one bathroom between 6:05 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. and accused of public masturbation. Mr. Martinez was the only one of the seven who didn’t plead guilty, according to court documents.

Mr. Martinez was acquitted after a trial. He subsequently filed a civil-rights suit and was awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Another civil-rights suit, of an arrest at the bus terminal in 2003, involved a then 65-year-old man who said he had difficulty urinating because of a treatment for prostate cancer. The case was settled, the man’s lawyer said. In legal documents, the Port Authority denied wrongdoing.

Lance Fletcher, a New York defense attorney who isn’t involved in the recent lawsuit, said being charged with lewdness in public bathrooms such as the Port Authority’s is common. “From the police officer’s point of view, it’s very difficult to distinguish between someone who is masturbating and someone who is shaking it off,” he noted.

Such cases are difficult for both police officers and defendants because the circumstances can make the difference between normal conduct and criminal behavior difficult to discern, said Richard Emery, a New York civil-rights attorney. An officer’s judgment could be clouded by department pressure and incentives to make arrests.

Still, officers must balance various interests. “Public lewdness can be a problem that, if in fact it actually occurs, other people are entitled not to be accosted by the behavior in a bathroom,” Mr. Emery added.



This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.