Baton Rouge Authorities Respond To Firestorm Over Arrests Of Gays On Obsolete Charges

Louisiana
Authorities issued a statement Sunday as a firestorm raged over a dozen arrests of gay people at a Baton Rouge park on charges of violating the state's sodomy law, which was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court a decade ago. IBTimes

The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office issued a statement Sunday addressing the criticism of the office that has reached fever pitch based on a blockbuster story in a local newspaper called the Advocate that revealed deputies have been arresting gay people on charges they violated the state’s sodomy law.

The arrests have the gay community in the Pelican State and nationwide up in arms, and with good reason: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a decade ago that the law and others like it are unconstitutional.

Despite that 2003 ruling in the Lawrence v. Texas case, the Advocate -- not the local newspaper in Baton Rouge but the national publication that covers issues related to the gay community -- wrote that “Salon recently noted that 22 states still have a version on the books, 13 of which specifically target same-sex couples. In Virginia, the Republican candidate for governor, Ken Cuccinelli, has actually sued to keep the law intact while serving as the state’s attorney general.”

And on Sunday East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux III was compelled to finally issue a statement about his office’s actions, the Advocate in Baton Rouge reported, although he stopped short of apologizing. (All following references to the Advocate in this article will be to the local newspaper.)

“The Sheriff’s Office has not, nor will it ever, set out with the intent to target or embarrass any part of our law-abiding community,” the sheriff’s office statement says. “We will consult with others in the legislative and judicial branches to see what can be done to remove this law from the criminal code that each deputy receives and to also find alternative ways to deter sexual and lewd activity from our parks.”

The way the arrests went down is pretty simple, although the resulting firestorm will definitely not be an easy one for the sheriff’s office to quell.

In one typical case, an undercover East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy was watching over Manchac Park one day this month at about 10 a.m. local time when a car drove slowly by and parked, according to the Advocate. The deputy parked next to the vehicle and struck up an electronically monitored conversation with its 65-year-old driver. During the conversation, the deputy denied being a cop, and they eventually moved to a nearby picnic table, the Advocate reported. The deputy then asked the man whether he would like to come to his home for “some drinks and some fun,” later asking if he had condoms, court records cited by the Advocate revealed. The man followed the undercover deputy to an apartment, where he was in for a rude surprise, as he was arrested and taken to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on one count of “attempted crime against nature.”

That was it -- all the man had to do to get collared was agree to have drinks with the deputy, who did not reveal he was a law-enforcement officer. As the Advocate noted, the man didn’t suggest he wanted to have sex in the park or to exchange money for sexual favors.

His is not the only instance of such an arrest under the obsolete state sodomy law: The Advocate’s investigation revealed that at least 12 similar cases have been brought since 2011.

Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III told the newspaper that his office did not prosecute any of the folks who were arrested under the sodomy law, as no crimes had taken place, but that hasn’t stopped the sheriff’s office from continuing to make such arrests. “The sheriff’s office’s intentions are all good,” Moore said. “But from what I’ve seen of these cases, legally, we found no criminal violation.”

Sheriff’s office representative Casey Rayborn Hicks explained in an interview with the Advocate why she believes the actions are reasonable uses of law-enforcement resources, and why the Supreme Court’s decision on sodomy laws did not preclude the office’s deputies from making such arrests. “This is a law that is currently on the Louisiana books, and the sheriff is charged with enforcing the laws passed by our Louisiana Legislature,” Hicks said. “Whether the law is valid is something for the courts to determine, but the sheriff will enforce the laws that are enacted.”

The situation has drawn the ire of a number of gay-rights groups, which argue that the deputies are violating the rights of the people they are arresting by applying an obsolete law far too broadly even if the Supreme Court had not ruled on sodomy laws.

Peter Renn, an attorney with the gay-rights group Lambda Legal, described a pattern of “unlawful arrests over multiple years” in an interview with the Advocate. “The fact that this has been going on for a two-year period is unbelievable,” Renn said. “This is basically like the police putting up a sign that says, ‘Please sue me.’”

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