Prosecutors Continue Witch Hunt Against Gay Men

In February and July, the Hollywood Police Department raided the Pleasure Emporium – an adult business at 1321 South 30thAvenue – resulting in the arrests of more than a dozen men.

The men were charged for a variety of acts, including masturbating and engaging in oral sex, officially “exposure of sexual organs and/or unnatural lascivious acts.”

In late October, Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wrenruled that the locked rooms at the Pleasure Emporium are, in fact, private areas, and therefore charges of exposing genitals in public aren’t valid.

Lerner-Wren dismissed two of the cases brought by attorney Rhonda F. Gelfman of North Miami Beach.

"The court finds that the Pleasure Emporium is not a public space under [Florida Statute] 800.03," Lerner-Wren wrote in her ruling. "The patrons who access the private viewing theaters where consensual activity occurs in the presence of other consenting adults objectively and subjectively possess a reasonable expectation of privacy."

The judge noted that Pleasure Emporium has “several levels of barriers” in place to keep unsuspecting patrons away from the sexual activity. 

But despite this ruling prosecutors have not dropped the charges against the other men. Those cases are assigned to other judges, who have the ability to rule differently because county court judges have what is known as ‘concurrent jurisdiction’ meaning one court’s ruling does not bind another.

“What this means is the state attorney’s office is judge shopping – trying to hook up with another judge that might rule in their favor,” said Russell Cormican, who represented one of the men whose case was dismissed.

Judge Lerner-Wren’s decision was hailed by those who thought the police had clearly overreached. The Hollywood Police did not share the judge’s view.

"The Hollywood Police Department respectfully disagrees with the judge’s interpretation,"  Miranda Grossman, the Hollywood Police Department's public information manager, told media outlets in October. "The State Attorney’s Office felt there was sufficient basis to file charges in August. The department still believes the establishment is not private since it is open to the public."

The Broward State Attorney who decided to prosecute the men is Michael J. Satz. After the judge’s ruling, Satz’ office said it would review the situation to determine next steps.

As of press time Satz’ office had not returned requests for updated comments to SFGN.

How the judge’s ruling will affect the charges against men with pending cases isn’t clear.

“I assumed the State would dismiss the cases [after the judge’s ruling],” said attorneyAbbie B. Cuellar of Miami’s Amador & Cuellar.Cuellar had filed a motion to dismiss her client’s cases and was denied.

She’s now scheduled to depose the police officers involved in the summer raid on Dec. 19.

“I want to find out the reason behind the raid,” she said. “They are claiming 11 of 13 men were seen doing exactly the same thing. Two clients are being accused of masturbating in the theater, but they never bought a ticket and were never in there,” she said.

The theater area is marked with a large neon “private viewing” sign. To access the theater area, patrons must be 21 years old and purchase a ticket from a clerk in the front of the store near a boutique retail area.

“[The Hollywood Police] had instructions to arrest anyone that was back there, and in order for it to stick, had to charge them,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar thinks the Hollywood Police assumed the arrested men would agree to plead out or enter a diversion program and never take their cases to trial. Diversion programs are typically used by those who have no prior arrests, although one is required to admit guilt.

Cuellar said her clients intend to go to trial, and are risking up to a year of jail time in order to send a message. 

“Even if they had done what they are accused of doing, they are consenting adults,” she said.

Cuellar said there are currently eight holdouts by her count.

“I’m very disappointed to hear that the prosecutors are ignoring Judge Lerner-Wren’s very well reasoned decision,” Cormican said. “It’s an incredible waste of resources to continue the prosecution of sexual encounters between consenting adults occurring in a place that a Judge has already found to be private.  I’d rather see them focus on real criminal activity and stop trying to govern the private sex lives of gay men.”

Rough road

One of Cuellar’s clients came to Florida via Cuba, fleeing what he saw as an oppressive area for one more socially accepting. In South Florida, he had a full time job in the health care industry and was going to school. Two days after his arrest, Cuellar said he was terminated. He was also not out at work as a gay man.

“He wants to be licensed as a nurse practitioner, but now has to wait until his case is resolved,” she said.

Cuellar said her client was able to find another job and that his partner and family were supportive, but he went through a “really difficult” time. 

Another of Cuellar’s clients lost his job and had to leave Miami to find work again. He went into a deep depression, she said.

“It was his first time [at the Pleasure Emporium],” Cuellar said. “He had gone at the urging of a friend.”

The family of another of her clients now isn’t communicating with him at all, Cuellar said.

“You’re outed and made to be a pedophile, a sex offender,” she said. “It wasn’t bad enough they get arrested, then the police department sends their pictures to the press.”

Two of Cuellar’s clients were charged with having consensual sex and two were charged with masturbating.

“[One client] goes there because he really doesn’t have a community. He talks to people there. He was in the hallway getting ready to leave when they arrested him,” she said.

Cuellar is surprised there hasn’t been more public outcry in response to the raids. 

“It shocks me there isn’t more of a reaction,” Cuellar said. “Today it’s my clients, tomorrow it’ll be someone else – people harassed and humiliated for a consensual act in a private place.It’s despicable that this is happening in Broward in 2018.”

 

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