Last edited: February 14, 2005

RI Anti-Sodomy Law Upheld

Saturday, June 24, 1995

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Critics of a century-old law banning sodomy say the newly upheld statute is dangerous because prosecutors use it to harass homosexuals and punish accused sex offenders who are found innocent.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling upholding the so-called "abominable and detestable acts against nature'' law, which had been found to be a violation of the constitutional right to privacy by a Superior Court judge.

"The fact that this is a law that criminalizes behavior that thousands of Rhode Islanders participate in yet only a few get charged each year means that it is used discriminatorily,'' said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union.

Sodomy is defined as oral, anal or "unnatural'' sex between two persons.

At the center of the ruling is a 1993 case in which an East Providence man was charged with four counts of sexual assault, including oral and anal sex.

The man, Jorge Lopes, 37, testified that the sex with a woman was consentual and was acquitted on all four counts. However, he was found guilty of two counts of abominable and detestable crimes against nature.

With the Supreme Court decision, Lopes faces a prison sentence of 14 to 40 years, and prosecutors say they intend to ask for jail time.

Brown and Lopes' attorney, Paula Rosin, said the law is often used to prosecute homosexuals and accused sexual offenders, like Lopes, who are found innocent of crimes.

"If (prosecutors) feel like their case is falling apart at trial, they can (charge the person with) this,'' said Rosin, a public defender.

Rhode Island has one of the toughest anti-sodomy laws, with each act punishable by a prison term of seven to 20 years. The only tougher state is Idaho, where sodomy is punishable by life in prison.

In 1994, 21 states barred sodomy, down from 49 states in 1969, according to the National American Civil Liberties Union. Rhode Island is the only New England state in which sodomy is a crime.

In ruling the law unconstitutional last year, Superior Court Judge Alton Wiley acknowledged that the 1980 case, Rhode Island v. Lopes, determined unmarried people do not have the right to privacy. However, Wiley said, federal law had shown that married people have some right to privacy, and therefore so should single people under federal and state equal protection laws.

In overturning Wiley, Supreme Court Justice Donald Shea wrote that it has not been determined in Rhode Island whether married people have the right to privacy.

The U.S. Supreme Court over the years has issued several rulings on the subject of marital privacy.

In Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, the high court invalidated a state law barring married people from using contraceptives. In Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986, it ruled that the right to privacy extends only to the general sexual life of a married couple.

Critics say they are angry the sodomy law is used selectively.

"I think the state doesn't really want to interfere with married people,'' said Rosin. ``They could, but because they feel the institution is so important, it's better to take a hands-off position. But that is not true with other groups.''

But Lopes prosecutor Jay Sullivan, from the Attorney General's office, said the law is used fairly.

"You make the decision when you are charging the case based on evidence. If a charge is there and you have a complaining victim...well, we handle each case on a case-by-case basis,'' Sullivan said.

Lopes may well go to prison for a crime even prosecutors admit is committed by thousands of other Rhode Islanders, Rosin said.

"I feel awful for Mr. Lopes, but it's also the kind of issue that effects everyone. As an individual, I'm astonished."

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