Police throughout California continue to arrest unsuspecting gay men as part of lewd conduct sting operations. In spite of protests and recent court victories, cops have shown few signs of slowing down.
Penal Code 647(a) “Lewd Conduct in Public” makes it illegal to engage in public sexual activity when you know or should know of the presence of other people who would take offense. The last part of that definition is critical. California law does not make it inherently illegal to do sexual acts in public. It only becomes a crime if third parties are there whom you have reason to believe would be offended.
In the sting operations, undercover “decoy” cops pretend to be gay men “cruising” in bathrooms, parks and other public places. They try to coax unsuspecting gay men into masturbating, dropping their pants, or doing or proposing some sexual act. Then they arrest the “suspects” for violating Penal Code 647(a).
Typically, the only people present are the gay “suspects” and the decoy cops pretending to be gay men looking for a hookup. Because the suspects have no reason to believe that their sexual activity, if any, would offend bystanders, they simply are not guilty of lewd conduct in public. Thus many of the lewd conduct in California cases get dismissed in court or defeated at jury trial.
But the larger issue is why police and prosecutors expend so much systemic resources trying to punish gays for, at most, hooking up in discreet public locations. The answer, we're afraid, is that institutionalized homophobia still infects police and prosecuting agencies, even in relatively progressive places like Los Angeles and Long Beach.