Following reports of sentencing disparities, New Jersey gay leaders press Trenton for action
Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s gay lobbying group, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey have called on Trenton officials and the commission that oversees the Palisades Interstate Park to investigate lewdness arrests made by the park police and the harsh sentences given to gay and bisexual men who were convicted of or pleaded guilty to lewdness.
“We believe that an investigation by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission of its police department’s practices and procedures regarding lewdness arrests is necessary to determine whether the department is engaging in discrimination,” wrote Steven Goldstein, the gay group’s chair, and Edward Barocas, legal director at the law group, in a July 27 letter to Richard J. Codey, New Jersey’s acting governor, and Carol Ash, executive director of the park.
Police made 95 lewdness arrests in the park last year and 37 so far this year, according to a June 10 article on Northjersey.com. Most of those arrested have been gay and bisexual men. Lt. Nelson Pagan of the park police told Northjersey.com that “his department has grown more aggressive in trying to weed out offenders. The 29-member force has put six officers on special plainclothes duty to patrol the park when the weather is inviting and manpower allows, up from two undercover officers in 2003.”
Some attorneys who represent the men have charged that the police entrapped their clients or urged the men to expose themselves before arresting them.
The New Jersey lewdness law requires that the act be “flagrantly lewd and offensive” and that the person “knows or reasonably expects to be observed by another non-consenting person who would be affronted or alarmed.”
If an undercover police officer urged a man to expose himself, then that man would believe the officer was consenting and would welcome the exposure. Defense attorneys have argued this point in the park court, but with little success. With roughly half the lewdness cases completed, all but one have resulted in a guilty plea or a conviction.
Chief John J. Parr, head of the police force that patrols the New Jersey section of the park, declined to comment and James Hall, superintendent of the New Jersey section, said of the letter “I haven’t seen it yet so I don’t know what it says. If somebody wants to investigate the police conduct that’s fine.”
The park is on the west side of the Hudson River and stretches from Fort Lee in New Jersey to Bear Mountain in New York.
Ash, who oversees the entire park and is Hall’s boss, said “My only comment is the ACLU is respected organization and I suspect that if they feel this needs investigating we will cooperate… From our point of view what the police are doing in New Jersey is what they are supposed to do and we don’t feel there has been any discrimination in any way.”
Steven J. Zaben, the judge in the park court, has given harsh sentences to gay and bisexual men who were convicted of or pleaded guilty to lewdness there. Typically, these include $1,000 fines, five-day suspended jail sentences, two years on probation, two-year bans from the park that include using the highway that runs through the park and, in some cases, court-supervised psychiatric counseling.
Following a July 12 trial, Zaben found a heterosexual couple guilty of lewdness, having open alcohol containers in the park, and failing to turn on their car parking lights when parked.
He fined both the man and the woman $750 for lewdness, $200 each for the open containers, and the man was fined $54 for failing to use his parking lights. Zaben banned the couple from the park for two years. Neither received suspended jail sentences, probation or court-supervised counseling.
Goldstein and Barocas also asked that the governor’s office to “conduct a comprehensive review of Judge Zaben’s handling of lewdness charges against gay men including comparisons to determine whether his practices indicate disparate treatment of or have a disparate impact on gay men.”
Zaben did not respond to calls seeking comment. Douglas F. Doyle, the park court prosecutor, was on vacation in Europe and unavailable for comment. The park court handles low-level crimes and traffic offenses.
Codey’s office declined comment and forwarded the letter to the office of Peter C. Harvey, the state attorney general, who did not respond to a request for comment.