An SFGN investigation has revealed that law enforcement officers in Palm Beach County are stopping men and questioning them in at least one public park with no legal basis to do so.
Over the past month the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has been aggressively patrolling John Prince Park in Lake Worth, stopping men, who are walking alone, and then interrogating them. In some instances, they’ve even taken photos of the men for their “personal use.”
One man SFGN interviewed said he was questioned by a Sheriff, while he was walking through the trails two weeks ago. He insisted he was doing nothing illegal and just walking along one of the many walkways. He was not arrested, not accused of any illegal activity, but told not to come back to the park again.
“There are a lot of other parks to go walking around in, I suggest you don’t come here anymore,” he said the officer told him. He claimed the Sheriff also said “we have been checking license plates for the past two weeks. I’m going to see if your plate is one of them.”
The man said the officer asked for his identification and to take his photo. He consented because he was scared.
“Would you mind if I take you picture?,” he said the Sheriff told him. “It’s not going on any website. Or any file. It’s for our personal use.”
SFGN confirmed the random stops in the park by sending a reporter in plain clothes. An SFGN reporter was stopped by two pairs of Sheriff’s and interrogated, however the Sheriffs did not ask to take a photo, or tell the reporter not to come back. The SFGN reporter did not identify himself as a member of the press.
One attorney believes these men’s constitutional rights have been violated.
“What the police are doing here goes well beyond just a consensual encounter with a citizen and amounts to an illegal detention. By photographing people, taking down personal information, and demanding ID without any legal justification, the police are violating the 4th amendment’s prohibition against unlawful seizure,” said Russell Cormican, a criminal defense attorney in Fort Lauderdale. “Further, by directing law abiding people to cease visiting public parks that they have every right to enjoy, the police are violating the constitutional right to free association. It is very troubling that police are engaging in such tactics, particularly where that conduct appears directed at only one particular group of people. The incidents reported by the men who were stopped could serve as the basis for a civil rights claim against the police department and at the very least should warrant disciplinary action against the officers involved.”
Here’s what happened transpired when SFGN was stopped by the Sheriffs.
Officer: We have a few complaints about certain activities going on back here. Unwanted. Trying to make contact with people to see if we can find out what’s going on. Hopefully ID some of the guys coming here.
Officer: How often do you come here?
Reporter: Every once and a while.
Officer: Where do you live?
Reporter: Boynton Beach.
Officer: Do you come here for…
Reporter: To take a walk.
Officer: There are no other places in Boynton Beach to take a walk?
Reporter: This is the biggest park around.
Reporter: What kind of complaints?
Officer: A bunch of complaints. A lot of crimes happen back here.
Reporter: Like robberies and murders?
Officers: No murders. People complaining of sexual batteries back there. Stuff. Lewd and lascivious behavior.
Officer: [Asked for reporter’s ID]
Officer: Are you taking a walk or waiting on somebody?
Reporter: Taking a walk.
Officer: Are you off of work today?
Reporter: No I worked.
Officer: Where do you work at?
Reporter: Today, I worked at home.
Officer: Is this your car?
Officer: [Finishes up questioning] Don’t let us scare you away from your walk.
A few minutes later the SFGN reporter was stopped a second time by another pair of officers, but was quickly let go, after they learned that he had just been stopped a few minutes prior.
SFGN spoke to three men were who questioned by police. Two of them claimed to have their photo taken. One said he was even questioned on how gay men hook up on mobile phone apps.
James Greene, the legal chair for the Palm Beach County ACLU, offered this simple advice to anyone randomly stopped by the police: “don’t say anything.”
“The reason they mentioned the license plates is because a lot of people told that, will get irritated or try to engage the officer in some kind of conversation, which usually doesn’t help much,” Green said. “The best thing for them to do just sit there keep their mouths shut.”
In some cases law enforcement officers will ask a lot of innocent-seeming questions in order to get the person to say something that gives them probable cause to detain them.
Green doesn’t believe the Sheriff’s department did anything illegal though in this.
As for those photographs, Green said, if a Sheriff claimed they were just for personal use that’s “bullshit.”
“If a law enforcement officer says that, that’s bullshit. Of course they’re going to use it, and put in a database,” Green said. “It can also be requested and posted on those internet shakedown sites.”
Green said if the police officer did indeed tell the man SFGN interviewed, to not visit the park, again the officer was “just trying to provoke him.”
Green then repeated his earlier advice, “don’t engage, don’t say anything.” However, if someone felt like they were being given an illegal directive the best response would be to ask “are you directing me not to come into the park? And if so what’s your name and badge number.”
In 2011 SFGN published a yearlong investigation of the Palm Beach County Sheriff Office’s 5-year undercover sting targeting gay sex in public parks. Only a handful of the 300 arrests SFGN reviewed – four to be exact -- were between two men having sex in the park. The rest of them involved an undercover detective soliciting another man for sex using legally dubious tactics. In one of the more outrageous cases SFGN investigated, one man, who was eventually arrested for loitering in a public restroom, was chased via car through the park by an undercover officer. The man thought he being followed by someone who wanted to rob him. Eventually two undercover officers surrounded his car, pulled a gun on him, handcuffed him, arrested him – all for allegedly loitering. “I had no clue he was a cop,” the man told SFGN at the time. “I thought they were robbing me.” Most of the man’s story was backed up by the official police report.