HELL’S KITCHEN — Port Authority Police officers target men they perceive as gay or gender non-conforming and falsely arrest them for masturbating at urinals inside the Eighth Avenue bus terminal, a new lawsuit charges.
Plaintiffs Cornell Holden and Miguel Mejia claim they were falsely arrested for public lewdness at the bus terminal in separate incidents in 2014.
The pair filed the proposed class action lawsuit against the Port Authority, its police department and several individual officers in Manhattan federal court Monday.
Holden was using a urinal inside a bus terminal restroom in May 2014 when he noticed a man he later learned was a Port Authority Police officer watching him from a urinal next to his, the suit says.
The man stepped backward and looked around the wall between the urinals "in an apparent effort to see Mr. Holden’s hands and genitals," before leaving the restroom, the suit alleges.
When Holden himself exited the restroom, Port Authority officers arrested him, handcuffed him and took him to a detention facility, where he was charged with public lewdness and "exposure of a person," according to the suit.
The officer who had watched Holden in the bathroom signed a sworn affidavit claiming he’d seen Holden masturbating at the urinal, the suit says.
While Holden was in a holding cell, he heard Port Authority officers congratulating another officer and referring to one officer as "the gay whisperer," the suit says.
The charges against Holden were ultimately dismissed in December 2014, the suit says.
Like Holden, Mejia was arrested after a Port Authority officer claimed he’d been masturbating at a restroom urinal in July 2014, the suit says.
Mejia believes he was targeted by Port Authority officers "because of his appearance, in that his clothing, tattoos and jewelry were such that… officers perceived him to be gay or gender non-conforming," according to the suit.
He was acquitted of a public lewdness charge in November 2014, after testifying in his own defense, the suit says.
The New York Times published an article about the alleged pattern of arrests at the bus terminal in October 2014, and Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm denounced the practice in a letter dated Oct. 10, 2014. The suit claims Port Authority officers have continued to target and falsely arrest men on "baseless" public lewdness and exposure charges.
The practice dates back to at least February 2000, when Port Authority Police arrested a man named Alejandro Martinez for public masturbation outside the men’s room at the World Trade Center’s PATH station concourse, the suit explains.
Martinez — who was later acquitted — sued the Port Authority and three of its police officers, according to the suit. A jury ruled in his favor in November 2004.
Since then, however, the Port Authority Police Department has failed to train its officers in "non-discriminatory practices" and hasn’t investigated the incidents or monitored them for discriminatory patterns, according to the lawsuit.
Officers target men that they "perceive as gay (based on appearance) or gender non-conforming," and may arrest the men to "boost ‘quality of life’ arrest statistics," the suit claims.
"Port Authority Police Department officers make such arrests knowing or believing that the majority of those arrested would ultimately be effectively forced to plead guilty to lesser charges such as disorderly conduct to avoid the public embarrassment and humiliation, potential jail sentences and fines, and potential reputational and professional harm associated with the false charges," the suit says.
Port Authority officers arrested more than 60 people on public lewdness charges in 2014 alone — most of whom were accused of masturbating in the bus terminal’s restrooms by plainclothes officers standing next to them, the suit notes.
Mejia and Holden are the only plaintiffs named in Monday's suit, but lawyers for the men say it could become a class action lawsuit because they believe others have been arrested under similar false pretenses.
Attorney Thomas Patrick Lane, who represents Holden and Mejia, called the alleged tactics "deplorable indicia of a department that cares not about law or liberty."
"The use of police assets and resources in this unconstitutional and unconscionable way is particularly stunning in light of the world in which we live," he said in a statement.
Lane’s clients are seeking unspecified damages and the costs of the lawsuit, as well as a permanent injunction barring the Port Authority from continuing its "unlawful and unconstitutional practices."
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the lawsuit.
A spokesman for the Port Authority on Tuesday declined to comment on the suit.