Last edited: February 14, 2005

Stinging: Staunton Officials Don’t Like Sodomy

C-VILLE, November 6-12, 2001
222 South Street, Charlottesville, VA 22902
Fax: 434-817-2758

By Chris Edwards

Virginia Code statute 18.2-361, "Crimes Against Nature," makes it a Class Six felony to "carnally know any male or female person by the anus or by or with the mouth." Although tricorner-hatted lawmakers wielding quill pens may have written the first law (complete with death penalty) in 1792, the sodomy statute never came off the books.

It prohibits husbands and wives from certain private acts, but when police say they’ll rein in "sodomy," it’s usually gay men who end up in prison. Local stings haven’t grabbed headlines since 1998 when Charlottesville Police used them to "clean up" West Main Street, and Albemarle Police did likewise in the Ivy Creek Natural Area. In the Valley, however, stopping sodomy is still a priority.

In Harrisonburg, police for a decade have conducted periodic sting operations at Hillandale Park, arresting men on charges of solicitation to commit such acts homosexually.

Even soliciting sodomy is a Class Six felony, punishable by up to a five-year prison term and $2,500 fine. Typical sentences involve several months in jail. Each of the three men nabbed in the most recently reported sting, in April 2000, received three-month active sentences.

Harrisonburg Police Sgt. Kurt Boshart says his department conducts the stings only when it receives a citizen complaint, which he says has occurred on the average of once a year. What actually happens in the stings gets tangled in what might be called "he said, he said" reports. Boshart says undercover officers must wait for suspects to solicit them for sex. Some arrestees and their advocates, however, have said officers made the suggestions and they merely said "yes," while one man said he simply met an officer’s request for a ride. In 1993, one suspect committed suicide after his name appeared in Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record.

In Staunton, a September 2000 sweep targeted men in Montgomery Hall Park. Following complaints from citizens who reported witnessing sex acts, undercover police took video cameras to the site and arrested nine men on sodomy charges.

Police reports to news media, including the Staunton Daily News Leader (which published the arrestees’ names and addresses on its front page), indicated officers observed all the suspects performing sex. However, one man arrested, Bruce Hartley, and his attorney, Frank Mika, maintain that police neither saw nor photographed him.

Hartley insists he is innocent and is appealing his conviction. (Hartley says he was so fearful of the onerous felony punishment that he initially pleaded guilty to a circumstantial case and now wants to clear his name. He says he simply stepped into the woods to urinate.)

Mika and another attorney, Sam Garrison (who is appealing the convictions of nine men in a Roanoke solicitation sting), want to challenge the constitutionality of the sodomy law.

Although the Virginia Court of Appeals rejected Garrison’s appeal, he filed this summer for a re-hearing, with a request to consolidate the case with a Frederick County man’s conviction on charges of heterosexual sodomy. Garrison suggests charging anyone, gay or straight, having sex in public only with indecent exposure (a Class One misdemeanor), or proposing legislation addressing the misdeed more specifically.

Virginia is one of 17 states retaining sodomy laws. Del. Karen Darner (D-Arlington) has repeatedly introduced legislation to reduce those charges from felonies to misdemeanors. In 2000, her last such bill passed the House, 50-49, but died in the Senate.

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