Further signs of retreat on cops snaring gay men in N.J. Palisades
A New Jersey Municipal Court judge who has given harsh sentences to gay men convicted of lewdness in the Palisades Interstate Park allowed two men who were charged with lewdness to plead guilty on September 7 to a lesser charge of violating a park ordinance.
“I think we’re seeing some movement, a light at the end of the tunnel in the witch hunt of the Palisades Interstate Park police and the double standard in the sentencing,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide gay political organization. “That said, it is not a perfect world when gay men who are charged under this double standard have to plead guilty.”
One of the two defendants, a 42-year-old New Jersey man who is not gay, discussed the deal with Gay City News and asked that his name not be used.
“Doyle came to us with the plea deal,” the man said referring to Douglas F. Doyle, the park prosecutor. “He said that they spoke to the [arresting] officer and the state of New Jersey did not feel it would be able to meet its burden beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The man pleaded guilty to being “not properly attired” and paid a $150 fine. A second man who was on trial in the court on a lewdness charge the same day received the same deal.
“The lawyer for this other guy stopped and held a conversation with Doyle,” said the New Jersey man, who was arrested in 2004 by Thomas Rossi, the detective on the park police force who made many of the roughly 135 lewdness arrests that took place in the park during 2004 and 2005. The park extends along the Hudson River from the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge to Bear Mountain in New York, and all of the arrests have taken place in the New Jersey section.
In interviews last year, defense attorneys complained that Doyle and Steven J. Zaben, the judge in the park’s court, would not accept pleas to lower charges, forcing men to plead guilty to lewdness or go to trial where Zaben inevitably found them guilty. Only one case is known to have resulted in a not-guilty verdict.
In June, Zaben allowed two lewdness defendants to plead guilty to being “not properly attired” in the park, pay a $200 fine, and be banned from the park for one year.
The man and his attorney came to court prepared for a trial before Zaben, and they brought an aerial photo of the park that they intended to use to show that the encounter with Rossi took place in a “remote area” of the park and there was “nobody else around,” the man said.
New Jersey’s lewdness statute 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.” At a June 15 hearing, Doyle said that a police officer cannot be the non-consenting person, a position he had not previously taken.
In other cases, Zaben has given sentences that include a roughly $1,000 fine, a five-day suspended jail sentence, two years on probation, a two-year ban from the park including using the highway in the park, and, in some cases, court-supervised psychiatric counseling. In all the cases Gay City News is aware of, a police officer was the only witness to the lewdness.
Last year, Zaben gave a far lighter sentence to a heterosexual couple arrested for engaging in intercourse in the park. That conviction was overturned by a higher court and the charges against a second straight couple, who also had sex in the park, were dismissed by Doyle.
Defense attorneys and men arrested in the park in a large number of cases have said they had briefly exposed themselves and only after a man they encountered in the park, who turned out to be a police officer, urged them to do so.
The September 7 deals follow an August 9 New Jersey appeals court decision that threw out a 2005 lewdness conviction by Zaben. The appeals court clearly doubted Rossi’s assertion that he had not invited the men he arrested to expose themselves and it was also critical of Zaben’s legal reasoning in the case.
Zaben is also feeling some pressure from the state government. At a June hearing, he said that the state Administrative Office of the Courts had contacted him and instructed him to clear up his backlog of cases.
Following the August 9 appeals court decision, Garden State Equality and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey wrote Jon Corzine, New Jersey’s governor, and Zulima Farber, the state attorney general, seeking an investigation into the arrests and prosecutions in the park. Farber resigned over an unrelated matter on August 31 and the groups have not received a reply.
The New Jersey man who spoke to Gay City News remains angry over his arrest and the two-year legal ordeal he has been through.
“What they’re doing is an absolute disgrace,” he said of the park police and Doyle. “The more light that gets shined on these people they shrink back. These guys are alternately mean and cowardly.”