New Yorkers demand end to porn store arrest campaign

by on February 14, 2009  •  In Criminal law

According to Towleroad, a protest is set for noon today at New York's Gracie Mansion, the official residence of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, over what appears to be a campaign by police officials aimed at customers of porn stores, mostly gay. This follows a town hall meeting at the LGBT Community Center, where several hundred people showed up to demand that city officials back off the arrests.

Police have arrested more than 50 men, generally middle-aged gay men who were propositioned by young, attractive men who turned out to be police officers. Why? It seems that after the police arrest a series of men in a given store, the city files suit to close the shop as a nuisance.  And no, these stores are not in outer Queens or remote Staten Island.  We're talking Chelsea. Which is to say, we're talking major property values.

UPDATE: NY Times coverage of the Saturday protest

UPDATE Feb. 22: The demonstrations continue

Background from Gay City News, which has been bird-dogging this story:

"Generally, these are people who are not working as prostitutes and even when they are confronted by the undercover they may be intending to have sex, but not take any money," said Linda Poust Lopez, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, who is representing one of the five men busted in Unicorn DVD, located at 336 Eighth Avenue near 27th Street.

At least three of the men have pleaded not guilty. Attorneys for the other two known to have pleaded guilty either declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment. As Gay City News went to press, the remaining two men had not been identified.

The five arrests are part of a wave of such arrests that swept through Manhattan porn shops in 2008, with cops busting at least 27 men in at least six porn shops last year. Police made at least 25 other arrests from 2004 through 2007, including at least 23 at Video, Video, Video, a porn shop that was located at Eighth Avenue and 34th Street.

Citing those prostitution arrests, all of which were done by undercover officers, the city brought nuisance abatement lawsuits against seven of the eight businesses seeking to close them. Four of the seven lawsuits came in 2008. The city sued Unicorn DVD on January 14 of this year. Two of the businesses, including Video, Video, Video, were shuttered, while the other four stayed open under agreements with the city that restricted their operations.

The police department has defended the arrests, saying it is responding to community complaints. The Manhattan district attorney's office, which prosecuted the men, had no comment. The gay community clearly sees the arrests as fake, and the men as having been set up, judging by the angry comments on websites where the arrests have been discussed and at a January 15 town meeting that drew some 300 people to the LGBT Community Center.

"I think it's very disturbing that there has been this pattern of arrests," said Thomas K. Duane, the out gay Chelsea state senator, at the town meeting. "This is harassment. No matter how you look at this issue, the enforcement is completely, utterly inappropriate and out of control."

Andrea J. Ritchie, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, said the arrests and lawsuits against the porn shops are to punish "deviant sexuality." She said at the town hall, "The decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 did not end the policing of gay sex," referring to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down sodomy laws nationwide.

Two patterns of arrests have emerged at Blue Door Video, a First Avenue porn shop also the subject of recent law enforcement actions. One suggests police were sending younger cops into the store to aggressively flirt, often with older men. Eight of the 12 men arrested there were 42 or older. When those men agreed to what they thought was a consensual sexual encounter outside the store, the officers then said they wanted to pay the men. If the men did not refuse and walk away, they were arrested.

Police appear to have used that same method of aggressively flirting, winning agreement for consensual sex outside the store, and only then mentioning money, with the four younger men as well. Gay City News identified these patterns from reviewing the detailed arrest records contained in the nuisance abatement suit brought against Blue Door and speaking with two men arrested there. The records in the other 2008 lawsuits were far less detailed and did not identify the men arrested.

The men arrested in Video, Video, Video were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, with one teenager. Some of the criminal records related to that lawsuit are sealed, and Gay City News could not determine the age of all the men. Of the five men busted in Unicorn, two are now at least 34 and a third is now at least 27.

Herald Price Fahringer, the attorney who represented Video, Video, Video, argued in court filings that police entrapped the men arrested for prostitution there. Most of the arrests there "were solely the result of police solicitation," Fahringer wrote. "We urge that, absent the officers' prompting, these acts may not have occurred at all."


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