Last edited: January 02, 2005


City Reaches Settlement on Harassment Suit / Network, May 17, 2002

By Ann Rostow

SUMMARY: Detroit has settled a federal suit alleging illegal harassment of gay men socializing and cruising in a city park.

On Wednesday, the Detroit City Council approved the terms of a settlement, which is expected to resolve a federal lawsuit brought by the local American Civil Liberties Union and the Triangle Foundation, a Michigan-based GLBT advocacy group.

The suit, filed in August on behalf of six men, challenged the cityís "annoying person" ordinance, which the plaintiffs charged had been used illegally to target gay men in Detroitís Rouge Park.

The situation at the park, said the Triangle Foundationís Jeff Montgomery, "got to a point last year where hundreds of men were arrested, and it was clear the police were not interested in discussing it." The federal case, Montgomery told the Detroit Free Press, was the only way to get the attention of authorities.

Under the terms of the settlement, Detroit will pay $170,000 to the six plaintiffs, the city will repeal the "annoying persons" ordinance, and the language of other solicitation statutes will be revised. Sean Kosofsky, director of victim services for the Triangle Foundation, said the final details will be hammered out by a judge shortly, but the agreement should stand.

Passed in 1964, the annoying persons ordinance bans lewd, obnoxious or indecent behavior in public. But city police have allegedly used the law as an excuse to ticket men for sitting in their cars together around the park and for other harmless activities. In one case, a man was charged under the ordinance for giving his phone number to an undercover officer. According to the Detroit Free Press, others had their cars towed, costing them up to $900.

The settlement vote came on the same day that the Ohio Supreme Court struck down that stateís "importuning law," a 1972 revision to the criminal code that outlawed the unwelcome solicitation "of a person of the same sex to engage in sexual activity."

According to Ohio GLBT newspaper the Gay Peopleís Chronicle, the unanimous court diverged on the reasoning behind the opinion. The majority ruled that the law trampled on free speech, while a concurring judge wrote that the statute unfairly penalized homosexuals, violating equal protection rights. The importuning law was challenged by a gay man, Eric Thompson, who was imprisoned for six months after propositioning a jogger. The jogger later complained to police even though Thompson had not pursued the matter beyond the initial rejection.

Despite the Ohio and Detroit victories, GLBT civil rights advocates are concerned about what they describe as the continuing misuse of sodomy statutes, municipal codes and other sex-related laws throughout the country. In Los Angeles, Lambda Legal Defense spent years in court establishing that gay men were unfairly pursued and punished. In Missouri, where the sodomy law has been ruled unconstitutional by an appellate court, police are still enforcing the sex crime laws. Last month, officers arrested 13 men in a bookstore raid and charged them with violating the discredited statute. And earlier this year, a Rhode Island man hung himself after being caught in a video store sting, which was reported in the press.

The stigma of being branded a sexual outlaw is often more devastating than any fine or punishment. As Lambda attorney Jennifer Pizer points out, encounters with the criminal justice system can do lasting damage. "Whether it be registering as a sex offender or whether itís some other kind of public record, these kinds of arrests give a person a badge of infamy. And it happens all over the country."

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