Undercover police officer used gay slur during Palm Springs sex sting, witness testifies

INDIO – An undercover Palm Springs police officer uttered a homosexual slur during a sex sting in the Warm Sands gay enclave in summer 2009, a witness testified Monday in an Indio court.

Defense witness Bruce Nickerson, a lawyer who specializes in defending clients who are arrested in sting operations, testified that he reviewed surveillance video from the Warm Sands sting operation.

Nickerson testified that the undercover officer, who was observing the sting from an unmarked police car, called the man caught in the bust a “c—s—-r.” The slur, Nickerson said, provoked laughter from the other undercover officer sitting in the police car.

The undercover sex sting in June and July 2009 netted 24 arrests.

All 24 men were charged with misdemeanor violations of Penal Code sections 314 and 647(a) – laws related to indecent exposure and lewd conduct. What makes these cases different, observers say, is that the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office (DA) wants the 24 men to be declared sex offenders for life if they are found guilty.

The Riverside County Public Defender’s Office, meanwhile, contends that the DA struck a backroom deal with the Palm Springs Police Department to force those arrested in the Warm Sands sting operation to plead guilty to the harshest charges requiring the sex offender designation.

The Public Defender also accuses those involved in the sting operation of exclusively targeting gay men while giving heterosexuals a free pass on public sex – which the defense is calling discriminatory.

The allegations were first reported on May 12 in San Diego Gay & Lesbian News and since have been widely reported by newspapers and TV stations in the Palm Springs area and by other gay media nationwide.

In court on Monday, Palm Springs police Lt. Dennis Graham testified that the police and the DA had reached a “consensus” on how to prosecute the sting cases, but disputed that a backroom deal had been made.

Also Monday, prosecutors asked to strike written testimony from Thomas Hughes, who was a deputy district attorney in Riverside County at the time of the sting operations.

Hughes testified that in his position as deputy district attorney, he was aware of the deal between the DA and the police and heard homophobic comments made by a supervisor in the DA’s Office, as well.

Why this sting differs from others

SDGLN has obtained a copy of the court document from Thomas Hughes, who was a Deputy District Attorney for Riverside County from 2007 to 2009 and who was assigned to the Indio branch. The document – which the DA is trying to get excluded from the trial — provides an insider glimpse into how Palm Springs initiated its 2009 undercover sting operation.

Hughes describes a 2008 sting operation conducted by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which provides police services to the city of Rancho Mirage. As with the Palm Springs operation, the Rancho Mirage sting was directed at men who have public sex with men, not at heterosexual couples.

Hughes said the county prosecutors settled a majority of the 2008 cases for violations of Penal Code sections 647(a) or 415. Those are much less serious misdemeanor charges than Penal Code 314, which requires lifetime registration as a sex offender.

In his document, Hughes states that he was informed that the Palm Springs Police Department (PSPD) wanted to ensure ahead of the sting operation that their cases would only settle for violations of the more serious Penal Code 314.

“I have been informed and thereon believe that during spring or summer of 2009, a meeting was therefore set up between the PSPD and the District Attorney’s Office,” Hughes states in the document.

“The DA’s Office was represented by Trisha Fransdahl, a Supervising Deputy District Attorney, who met with members of the PSPD. This meeting occurred before the sting operation took place and before anyone was arrested. At that meeting, it was agreed that all of those arrested would be charged with violations of Penal Code sections 314 and 647(a). It was also agreed that Defendants would only be allowed to plead to the 314 count. Based on my experience at the District Attorney’s Office, such a meeting, before anyone is even arrested, is unusual.”

Hughes also states that the DA’s Office decided that the Palm Springs sting cases would not be subject to negotiations or plea deals.

Bolstering the discrimination claim is this statement by Hughes: “I was also in my office when I personally heard Linda Dunn, head of the Eastern Division of the District Attorney’s Office and the supervisor of Ms. Frandahl, make homophobic remarks. This occurred when I overheard Lee Roberts, one of the District Attorneys on the Palm Springs cases, express a desire to Ms. Dunn to visit the scene of the sting.

“Several times I heard Ms. Dunn make disparaging remarks about ‘those people’ as she laughingly expressed concern for Mr. Roberts’s safety if he were to visit Palm Springs. Ms. Dunn did not want Mr. Roberts to go, stating that, ‘I don’t want you around ‘those’ people, we don’t know what they’re capable of doing. If you go, be safe.’”

Were gay men exclusively targeted?

Roger Tansey, the Deputy Public Defender in Riverside County, said he cannot find a single sting operation directed at heterosexuals in the past decade.

Tansey said he has reviewed the county’s public defender cases from Jan. 1, 1999, to Sept. 23, 2009, and found no case where straight couples were prosecuted for having sex in public.

The discovery motion for the current trial lists a number of incidents of public indecency involving heterosexual people, and suggests that the Palm Springs police ignore those. Not only that, the document contends that Palm Springs police give preferential treatment to Marines, allowing them to escape arrests of public drunkenness, fighting, hitting girlfriends – all public incidents without legal consequences.

In one document, a deputy sheriff describes working off-duty at a water park in Palm Springs and observing 10 to 15 incidents of public sex between heterosexual couples. All of this occurred in public at a park catering to families and children, yet no arrests were made.

The defense also cites examples of women exposing their breasts in public without fear of arrest.

“Heterosexuals in Palm Springs are free to engage in lewd conduct, expose their private parts, perform fellatio and cunnilingus, or enjoy sexual intercourse naked in public without fear – PSPD undertakes no stings to discourage this behavior, nor has it ever arrested them,” the defense states in a document.

The discovery motion seeks to expand on this contention.

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