Lambda Legal on Oct. 11 filed a federal lawsuit over a police department's release of sealed information associated with a sex sting operation in Westchester County, N.Y.
The suit, filed on behalf of an arrested man, names the Westchester County Department of Public Safety, Commissioner George Longworth and other officers as plaintiffs.
Lambda alleges that against court orders, the police department released sealed information — including the names, photos, towns and charges — about its client and at least 12 other men who had been arrested weeks before in a sex sting operation dubbed “Operation Overexposed.” The sting was focused on Westchester’s Saxon Woods Park.
“The misconduct of the Westchester County police is the latest manifestation of generations’ old abusive police tactics to target LGBT people for humiliation and harassment. In this country, the police do not get to add an extra punishment to people they don’t like,” Lambda’s Susan Sommer said in a news release.
She added, “In keeping with the presumption of innocence, people should not be tried and convicted by the police and the press. The Westchester County Public Safety Department went out of its way to flout court sealing orders and state law expressly prohibiting release of this arrest information, in order to publicly humiliate and stigmatize” the gay men.
The county department issued a press release on Oct. 14, 2011, that went to at least 200 email addresses. The release, according to Lambda, boasted of 16 arrests in Operation Overexposed and included the names of the arrested men, arrest charges and mug shots.
The release did not mention that criminal charges had been dropped, that only citations were issued and that the records for the men had been sealed by court order and state law.
Local news outlets covered the story, featuring the names of the men and photographs, although it is a journalism standard not to publish the names of those facing misdemeanor or lesser charges.
Longworth, according to Lambda’s complaint, boasted to the press, “If you come to Saxon Woods Park for this purpose, you will be arrested, and your name will be released to the media.”
The police department’s news release on the sting was one of 10 issued in all of 2011, even though the department said it made 1,500 arrests during the year.
Lambda’s client, whose name has been withheld, said he was horrified “to see my picture all over the news with police reports of my arrest for criminal charges that already had been dropped."
“I was shocked that the police would ignore the law and release sealed information about me," he said. "Bringing this lawsuit is very difficult because it could stir up the old stories again. But the Westchester County Police need to be stopped from hurting other gay men in the future. It’s important to stand up to bullies, even if they’re the police.”