Lawsuit Alleging Port Authority Police Targeted Gay Men Heads to Trial

Members of the Port Authority Police Counter Terrorism unit patrol the subway corridor, at the New York Port Authority subway station near the site of an attempted detonation the day before, during the morning rush in New York
A lawsuit insisting that Port Authority cops targeted LGBTQ people in a restroom is heading to trial.
Reuters/Brendan McDermid

A federal judge hearing a lawsuit that charges the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) maintained a policy of targeting gay and gender non-conforming men for arrest in a men’s room at the agency’s Midtown bus terminal effectively ruled that the lawsuit can go to trial.

“This decision affirms the discriminatory treatment our clients have been suffering for years at the hands of the Port Authority Police Department,” said Molly Griffard, a legal fellow with the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, in a press release. “These illegal practices have been previously raised with the PAPD but, to date, the department has refused to offer training or discipline officers to curb these problematic tactics. The PAPD must be held to account for these policies that grossly infringe on our clients’ most basic civil rights.”

The lawsuit, which was launched in 2017, stems from the 2014 arrests of gay and gender non-conforming men in a single men’s room in the bus terminal. Two of the men, Cornell Holden and Miguel Mejia, are the named plaintiffs. Legal Aid is working with Winston & Strawn LLP, a private law firm.

The plaintiffs asserted that the Port Authority police had a “policy and/or pattern and practice of unlawful discrimination” and “targeting, and false arrests of men using” the bathroom. That included “a pattern and practice of targeting and wrongly arresting men that such officers perceive as gay, and/or gender non-conforming, on baseless charges including public lewdness and exposure, falsely claiming that they were engaged in illegal conduct at PABT restroom urinals.”

In a February decision, John Koeltl, the judge who is hearing the case in the Southern District of New York, wrote that “a reasonable factfinder could find that the PAPD failed to train or to supervise and discipline plainclothes officers” and that “this failure to train or to supervise and discipline was a proximate cause of the plaintiffs being unlawfully subjected to arrest without probable cause and to arrest in violation of their rights to equal protection.”

The case was bolstered by a 2005 federal lawsuit brought by Alejandro Martinez, who was arrested by Port Authority police on a public lewdness charge in the PATH Station in the World Trade Center in 2000. Martinez was acquitted at a state trial and later won his federal lawsuit. The evidence in that case said the Port Authority police had quotas for public lewdness arrests. The officers who arrested Martinez allegedly threatened him with violence and directed anti-gay slurs at him and six other men who were arrested on the same day and in the same location as Martinez.

There is no allegation in the 2014 arrests that police used anti-gay slurs or threatened those arrested with violence.

During the Martinez federal trial, a Port Authority police officer gave testimony that showed a clear pattern of a large number of arrests, from 25 to 46, occurring in a few hours in two years or over a period of four months in one year. That pattern suggests that police were not responding to a specific condition or complaint, which is the standard police defense in lewdness arrests, but were simply compiling numbers.

That same pattern was seen in the current lawsuit, according to a report produced for the plaintiffs by John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University.

Looking at Port Authority police public lewdness data from 2013 through 2017, Pfaff wrote that just nine people were arrested for public lewdness in 2013, or 1.2 percent of the 750 arrests made that year. In 2014, public lewdness accounted for 13 percent of the 448 arrests made that year. Over the next three years, public lewdness arrests by the Port Authority police accounted for three percent or less of all arrests in those years. The New York Times published an article on the 2014 arrests in October 2014 after Legal Aid complained about the arrests.

Michael Coan, who was an expert witness for the Port Authority, wrote in his report that the execution of the arrests was consistent with “sound police tactics and probable cause for the crimes of which they were charged.” Coan, who had a long career in the NYPD before becoming chief of department for the MTA police, also found no evidence of anti-gay or bisexual bias or a pattern or practice of targeting gay or gender non-conforming men for wrongful arrests.

The parties are currently engaged in settlement discussions, which are mandated by the court.

“The court requires that the parties engage in a settlement conference at this stage of the case, and we are hopeful that in light of the court’s recent decision on summary judgment, the Port Authority, which is now facing a trial, will be willing to embrace reforms which will put an end to their discriminatory practices,” Seth Spitzer, a partner at Winston & Strawn, wrote in an email.

Citing ongoing litigation, the Port Authority declined comment.

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