New Jersey gay man awarded $1.1 million in civil rights claim on 2000 lewdness arrest
For 13 years, Alejandro Martinez rode the PATH train from New Jersey to his job as a food service manager for a Wall Street firm in Lower Manhattan. He took the same morning train and arrived at the World Trade Center just before 6 a.m. every workday.
It was a very ordinary commute until February 1, 2000 when he used the men’s room in the Trade Center PATH station and was arrested for public lewdness by the Port Authority police.
Martinez was held for 18 hours. He endured anti-gay abuse and threats of violence from the police. Several months later, Martinez encountered an arresting officer in the Trade Center and he was taunted by the cop as he walked through the building.
In September of 2000, Martinez was acquitted of the public lewdness charge in a state trial. On November 18 of this year, a federal jury awarded him $1.1 million dollars after finding that not only had his rights been violated, but that the Port Authority had a policy of making such arrests.
“Thank God this is over,” said the 49-year-old Martinez during an interview in his attorney’s office. “Maybe I can get back a little bit of myself, back to who I used to be.”
The past four years have been a struggle as Martinez has battled depression and panic attacks that he said resulted from the arrest. It started when he entered the men’s room in 2000 and a man he later learned was a cop flirted with him.
“He looked at me,” Martinez said. “He gave me a smile.”
Martinez ignored him and went to the urinal. He noticed that the man kept glancing around at the other men in the bathroom.
“He started looking at me, looking around, and back and forth,” he said.
When Martinez went to wash his hands the man stood between him and the sinks so he quickly left. The man followed him outside, called him back, and said, “You know you are under arrest.”
Another plainclothes officer came up to the two of them and said, “Wow, look how fast you got the first one” and the first officer responded “Yeah, I did a good trap,” according to Martinez.
When he objected, Martinez said the first officer clenched his fist in front of his face and said, “You calling me a liar? You want me to break your teeth?”
Later, as he was being processed, Martinez said he heard another officer refer to him and the six other men arrested on that morning as “faggots” and “queers.”
One man who had been arrested was crying and asking aloud what he would tell his wife. An officer responded with, “I can’t do anything about that. I’ve got a quota to fill,” according to Martinez.
Michael L. Spiegel, who represented Martinez, said he produced evidence in the federal trial that the Port Authority cops had to fill arrest quotas and that statement was part of the evidence to support that.
Spiegel elicited testimony from a Port Authority witness who said that, before they began making arrests that morning, the cops had been told to put all of their arrests on one criminal complaint. The seven arrests they made that morning are on one form.
“They anticipated making multiple arrests that morning,” Spiegel said. “That was part of our argument, that there was a quota.”
Later, when Martinez was calling Frank Adamowicz, his partner of 25 years, to tell him he had been arrested, another officer grabbed the phone from his hands and told Adamowicz, “‘We caught him jerking off in the bathroom.’ He said it twice,” Martinez said.
In June of 2000, as he was walking with Adamowicz through the World Trade Center on the way to a court appearance, Martinez said one of the officers taunted them.
“He came up behind me and he screamed ‘Martinez,’” he said. “He started walking behind us.”
The officer followed them until they stepped into a store to get away. As they exited the building, they had to pass between two officers, including the one who had screamed at him earlier who stood swatting his hand loudly with a newspaper.
“I was panicked, I was panicked,” Martinez said. “That day he scared me.”
Martinez struggled with depression following the arrest, and got help first from the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP) and then from a private therapist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He reported having nightmares, panic attacks and thoughts of suicide.
“I got lost,” Martinez said. “I lost my life… I didn’t want to do nothing in my life anymore.”
Despite those problems, there was never any question that he was going to challenge the charge in court.
“When I came home I said, ‘Frank it’s time to stop this harassment of the gay community,’” Martinez said. “I wanted to fight. I wanted my rights. I wanted to fight for the gay community.”
The state trial on the criminal charge, before a judge, lasted an afternoon. The verdict came quickly.
“There wasn’t a breath between the last words out of the DA’s mouth asking the judge to find him guilty and the judge saying ‘Well I find him not guilty,’” Spiegel said.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office called just one officer to testify in the case. Spiegel called two other cops and Martinez. The inconsistencies in their stories were apparent, according to Spiegel.
“You could not accept one version without rejecting another version,” he said.
The federal civil rights trial this year lasted four days. The jury was told that to hold the Port Authority responsible, and not just the individual officers, they must find that “the action of the employee that deprived [Martinez] of his federal rights was a result of an official policy or practice, or a custom of the Port Authority.”
Spiegel said the Port Authority had a policy of making false arrests that relied on men pleading guilty to a lesser charge, usually disorderly conduct, following a public lewdness arrest.
“I think the overall thing is that this was a policy that took advantage of the humiliation of being arrested for public lewdness,” he said. “They counted on the fact that people were so humiliated that they would accept a guilty plea.”
Spiegel also sees the verdict as an endorsement of all that Martinez charged the police with.
“I look at it as the jury saying we fully believed him,” said Spiegel who was assisted on the federal case by Scott A. Korenbaum, an attorney. “They are saying we have no doubt that they are lying and you are telling the truth.”
A Port Authority spokesman said that it would appeal the verdict and would not comment on pending litigation.
Gay groups criticized the Trade Center arrests before the building was destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attack.
“I think this is a complete vindication of what so many of us have thought all along,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “It was clear, speaking to victim after victim after victim, that there was a pattern and practice of the Port Authority arresting men regardless of their activities.”
Spiegel introduced evidence during the trial showing that police made 234 public lewdness arrests there from 1996 to 2000. Foreman said the Martinez case showed that fighting the charges is the right choice.
“I think the lesson is always to fight and try to clear your name,” he said. “Everyone has to make that decision on their own, but if you decide to pursue it, you can win. The outrage is that men should have to go through this at all.”
Richard Haymes, AVP’s executive director, praised Martinez for challenging the Port Authority.
“For Mr. Martinez to stand up and expose the homophobic policies of the Port Authority is an incredibly courageous act,” he said. “We think this is an incredible victory not only for Mr. Martinez, but for the community. Each year we get several cases related to public lewdness that we know are false charges and basically harassment. Usually the victims just pay a fine and hope that it will all go away.”