SAN DIEGO (CN) — Opening arguments have been heard in a long-awaited discrimination case from a San Diegan who claims police arrested him illegally for public nudity at a Gay Pride event.
At the heart of Will Walters’ discrimination case is the question: Do police treat everyone the same in enforcing the city’s nudity laws?
Walters says no. He was arrested at a 2011 Gay Pride event in San Diego’s historic gay neighborhood, Hillcrest. Police officers pulled him from a beer garden and accused him of violating nudity laws. Walters was wearing a “micro kilt:” essentially, a loincloth over a thong, with flaps covering his buttocks and genitals.
Walters claims the city enforces its nudity codes willy-nilly, and that he was dressed no differently than women on San Diego beaches, or softball players wear at the annual Over the Line tournament, famous for players’ risqué outfits and team names.
Walters said he’d worn the same outfit to the Gay Pride in 2010 and police had no objections.
Walters’ road to trial has been long. A federal judge granted the city summary judgment in 2014, but Walters appealed to the Ninth Circuit in March this year, and a panel reversed and remanded in April.
The Ninth Circuit found that Walters had presented evidence that San Diego police attended a special meeting with Gay Pride organizers before the event, where officers announced that the police would enforce a new, more restrictive nudity policy.
The panel found a jury could find that policy tantamount to discrimination against gay people.
Walters’ attorney Christopher Morris told the jury during opening statements Tuesday that police treated his client differently because of “who he was, where he was and what he was doing.”
Morris said San Diego’s municipal code on nudity leaves it to “officer discretion” on how to enforce the nudity law. He said Walters was arrested because he refused to sign a citation police handed to him.
San Diego police issued 104 nudity citations from 2007 to 2012, Morris said, and Walters was the only one arrested for public nudity without being fully nude.
He also was the only person arrested for wearing a thong, which is commonly seen on San Diego beaches, the attorney added.
While Morris acknowledged that the case may be “kind of comical,” he told the jurors, “It’s so much more than that,” because it asks “if we are treated the same under the law.”
City attorney Stacy Jo Plotkin-Wolff painted a different picture for the jury.
She said that on the day Walters was arrested, San Diego police asked many scantily clad men and women to cover up, but did not issue citations because the parade-goers complied.
Many men wore outfits such as chaps that showed their buttocks and women walked around wearing only pasties that covered their areolas, Plotkin-Wolff said.
She disputed the claim that Walters’ outfit complied with the “one-inch strip rule,” which had been used to determine whether a person’s dress complied with city code. That rule required that a person’s anus be covered by at least a one-inch strip of fabric.
Plotkin-Wolff said that while Walters may have had panels of fabric covering his front and back, from the side, “You could see almost all of his behind.”
She said Walters was “angry and animated” when officers approached him twice that day and asked him to cover up. She said officers were “forced” to arrest him because he would not sign the public nudity citation, acknowledging a requirement to appear in court.
“It was not a close call; his entire rear end was exposed,” Plotkin-Wolff told the jury.
“He doesn’t want equal treatment; he wants special treatment. But he has to follow the same rules as everyone else.”
Nicole Murray-Ramirez, one of the organizers of the first San Diego Pride Parade in 1974, was called as the first witness Tuesday.
He walked jurors through the history of San Diego’s LGBT community and its often strained relationship with law enforcement.
Murray-Ramirez said San Diego police have come a long way from the days when the department was sued for refusing to issue a parade permit to Gay Pride organizers. He said police chiefs in recent decades have tried “to get officers to understand we have a diverse community.”
Yet to this day, Murray-Ramirez said, he receives four or five calls a month from LGBT residents who say they’ve been harassed by San Diego police. He said some gay citizens have refused to sign police citations for fear of being harassed at their home.
Murray-Ramirez is a liaison of sorts between the LGBT community and city and has served on multiple advisory boards to San Diego mayors. He said many of the complaints against police officers have been resolved, but there are still some “bad apples” on the force.
City attorney Danna Nicholas pointed out to Murray-Ramirez that the city has done a lot to support the Gay Pride parade, which has grown from about 200 people at the first event to more than 200,000 this summer.
She asked Murray-Ramirez if he knew the parade’s nudity policy had been changed in 2007 to reflect the official city policy and noted that in 2011, new special events Lt. David Nieslit enforced the rule requiring that a person’s buttocks be completely covered.
But when his own attorney questioned Murray-Ramirez again, he told him that police enforcement at Gay Pride events has largely depended on the individual officer’s personal feelings toward the gay community.
“In the past, officers said, ‘We’d rather you not kiss or hold hands,’ and we said, ‘No, we’re going to kiss and hold hands because this is a celebration.’ It depended on the lieutenant at the time,” Murray-Ramirez said.
The trial is expected to last through the week. Walters seeks an injunction and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for violation of the 14th Amendment, wrongful arrest and post-traumatic stress disorder.
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