A majority of the men arrested in a controversial police sex sting in Palm Springs accepted plea deals Monday that allow them to avoid registering as sex offenders.
With 11 of the 14 defendants who sought dismissal of their cases earlier this year taking the plea, there is some sort of resolution to the June 2009 operation in which Palm Springs police busted 19 men on suspicion of having sex in public.
"They were very relieved," Deputy Public Defender Roger Tansey said of his six clients who took the deal. "They are glad it is over with."
Several defendants were present during the hearing before Superior Court Judge Steven G. Counelis. One spoke to City News Service about his decision to enter a guilty plea and avoid the prospects of losing at trial.
"There are two things I said I would not do -- I will not register as a sex offender because I'm not a sex offender and I will not go to jail" -- so now I'm not doing both," said the defendant, who asked that his name not be used.
Four defense attorneys were in court for eight days starting in late January, seeking to have charges against their clients dismissed on the grounds that the police department selectively went after gays during the sting and that officers, including the police chief, were biased against homosexuals.
On Feb. 2, Superior Court Judge David B. Downing denied the dismissal motion, ruling the police department had sufficient grounds to run the sting and was not targeting gays.
Defense attorneys said Monday they plan to appeal Downing's decision, but had to wait until there was a resolution in the case to do so.
"I have always said nobody has the right to have sex in public," Tansey said. "My question is what Judge Downing didn't answer -- why are men and women allowed to have sex in public and have never been arrested ever, yet when it's two men they are?"
Though he denied the motion, Downing said the department mishandled some aspects of the operation.
The defendants were initially charged with misdemeanor lewd conduct and indecent exposure, the latter of which carries with a sex offender registration tag. Those who pleaded guilty Monday had the indecent exposure charge dropped in exchange for disturbing the peace or lewd conduct violation.
Though the penalties -- three years unsupervised probation and a $500 fine -- were the same across the board, the difference is "psychological," Tansey said. Six of the defendants pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace; five to lewd conduct.
"If it were you, wouldn't you rather have a disturbing the peace violation on your record?" Tansey said.
Evidence presented during the previous hearing showed that Palm Springs police Chief David Dominguez made comments insensitive to gays during the sting, as did Sgt. Bryan Anderson. Dominguez resigned as a result.
Defense attorneys said that hearing could have been avoided, had the prosecution come up with the offers early on in the legal process. Instead, they said the deal most accepted Monday was not presented until a day before the dismissal motion was scheduled to be argued in court.
Deputy District Attorney Earl Lee Roberts wouldn't speculate about that scenario, and said what his office offered Monday was appropriate.
"Based on the facts of each case, we made a determination of what would be our settlement in each case if they would settle it Monday and what would reach proper justice in each case," he said.
Three defendants did not take plea bargains Monday, if only because attorneys have not had a chance to review videotape of their arrests. With the case being reassigned to a different prosecutor, Roberts pulled offers to that trio, even though they will likely still be given the opportunity to take plea deals when they return to court in April.
Tansey said the offer between a lewd conduct or disturbing the peace charge depended whether inappropriate actions of a police officer were caught on the video involving a specific defendant.
Roberts did not discuss specifics, saying only that the prosecution "looked at what the defendants were doing and took into consideration of what else was going on around them."
Of the others arrested in the sting, one defendant is pursuing his case on entrapment grounds; two others took plea deals some time ago; and two more saw charges dropped because of a lag time in the trial process.