As he faced the urinal, holding a piece of artwork on one hand, he noticed the stare coming from a man in the adjacent stall. Mejia made eye contact and saw the man was smiling at him. He didn’t make much of it.
Then, as he walked out of the restroom, he felt a tap on his shoulder, turned, and there was a group of men wearing civilian clothes saying they were police officers, flashing badges. Among them was the man who had smiled at him moments earlier.
“They told me that I was under arrest. I continuously asked them why. And all I got from them was ‘You know what you were doing,'” Mejia told Law360.
He was taken to a cell and spent four hours under arrest, but was never told what for. He discovered two months later at a court hearing that he was charged with public lewdness, a misdemeanor that carries a possible jail sentence and requires registering as a sex offender.
Mejia, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community and was 42 when he was arrested, refused to take a plea. He was acquitted by a judge at trial.
Then, in 2017, represented by The Legal Aid Society and Winston & Strawn LLP, he sued the Port Authority Police Department and the arresting officers, saying his constitutional rights were violated. The officer who smiled at Mejia, John Tone, was one of the named defendants. Cornell Holden, another man arrested under similar circumstances and whose case was later dropped, joined as plaintiff.
The years-long litigation that followed uncovered instances of dozens of people who claimed to have been arrested for their gender identity or sexual orientation. Their stories exposed a pattern of biased, aggressive policing by the PAPD who used plainclothes officers to arrest gay, bisexual and gender-nonconforming people.
On June 1, just as Pride Month kicked off, the suit ended with a settlement. The PAPD committed to end some of its most aggressive practices and change the way it interacts with LGBTQ people.
Attorneys with The Legal Aid Society and Winston & Strawn, who powered the suit for five years, said the settlement will have an even broader impact on policing.
“This settlement represents an important victory for our clients, Cornell Holden and Miguel Mejia, who bravely fought to end the Port Authority Police Department’s discriminatory and, frankly, downright creepy practice of surveilling men the officers believed to be gay while using public urinals and falsely arresting them for public lewdness,” Molly Griffard, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, said in a press release Wednesday. “This kind of blatant homophobia has no place in policing, and the reforms achieved in this lawsuit aim to safeguard against future abuses.”
As part of the settlement, the PAPD will end the practice of sending plainclothes officers to patrol restrooms for lewdness or exposure. Highest-rank officials will have to sign off on such patrols when they’re necessary.
In addition, the police force will provide LGBTQ sensitivity training to all new recruits and will have to train existing officers on its changes in policy. A revised civilian complaint form will give people lodging complaints the option to self-report gender identity and sexual orientation, and such information will be tracked by the department.
The PAPD will also tap a high-ranking staffer as a point of contact for LGBTQ communities and designate single stall restrooms at the Port Authority Bus Terminal as gender-neutral.
Mejia and Holden will be paid a total of $40,000 in damages.
“I’m proud of the difference we’ve made by standing up against the PAPD’s bias-based policing. As a commuter who passes through Port Authority facilities on a daily basis, I will feel safer knowing that the reforms we fought for have been put in place, making it so that people like me aren’t arrested just because of who we are or what we look like,” Mejia, who now works as a manager at a city hospital, said in the press release.
“No one should have to go through what I went through, and I hope that the PAPD will change as a result of this lawsuit and settlement. Now that the case is settled, I’m eager to put it behind me and focus on growing my cake-baking business,” Holden said in the release.
Holden declined to be interviewed for this article.
The criminal cases against Mejia and Holden are sealed and cannot be accessed by the public.
A Port Authority spokesperson told Law360 on Thursday that “measures have been taken to effectively honor” the terms of the settlement.
“The alleged conduct in this case took place in 2014, and the Port Authority Police Department has not for years conducted plainclothes operations in the bus terminal’s bathrooms targeting public lewdness, the kind of operations that formed the basis for this now-resolved lawsuit,” the spokesperson said.
Marlen S. Bodden, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, said the officers involved were removed from plainclothes patrol duties after October 2014, when the arrests received public scrutiny in the media.
The agency declined to comment on whether the officers involved have been subject to any disciplinary action. Attorneys for the authority did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
In 2014, attorneys with The Legal Aid Society, the largest public defender in the city that represents most indigent defendants in Manhattan, noticed a pattern of arrests for public lewdness offenses at the Port Authority Bus Terminal that focused on a particular men’s restroom on the second floor of the building. All the arrestees were men who identified as either LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming.
“Our clients were simply using the restroom, and they were arrested for lewd conduct,” Bodden said. “They complained that all they were doing was using the urinal.”
In 2017, as a civil suit was brewing, The Legal Aid Society enlisted Winston & Strawn.
“When Legal Aid realized that there seemed to be something off here, they decided to investigate further. They brought in Winston and we filed a complaint,” said Seth Spitzer, a commercial litigator at Winston & Strawn who worked on the case pro bono. “We’re very proud of our clients for sticking with this and fighting this fight.”
The complaint, filed on March 27, 2017, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York was initially a proposed class action naming the PAPD, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and seven officers and supervisors who were in charge of the arrests.
The plaintiffs sought a permanent injunction to end the policy and promote reforms in the department’s practices.
The suit alleged false arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment and accused the officers of unlawfully targeting people based on their self-expression and the perception that they were gay or gender-nonconforming, a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
The complaint also accused the PAPD of allowing the arrest practice to continue, targeting members of the LGBTQ community.
Spitzer said the arrest reports seemed to use the same “boilerplate language” and scenarios.
“They were accusing these men in the restroom of public masturbation or exposing themselves,” he said.
|Named Plaintiffs||Individual Defendants|
|1st complaint filed on 3/27/2017||Miguel Mejia
4 “John Doe” officers
|2nd complaint filed on 10/06/2017||Miguel Mejia
100 “John Doe” officers
|3rd complaint filed on 11/28/18||Miguel Mejia
93 “John Doe” officers
As attorneys dug deeper into people’s stories, the scope of the practice appeared to be increasingly wide and more officers were added to the suit. By the time a third complaint was filed on Nov. 28, 2018, the proposed class action listed over 100 individual defendants and two additional named plaintiffs.
But on Feb. 26, 2020, U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl denied class certification, saying the plaintiffs lacked the “numerosity” element required in class actions. The case continued as a civil suit on behalf of Mejia and Holden.
“We had a difficult time getting members of the class to be willing to come forward because this is very personal. Folks were concerned about speaking out and putting their name out in the public that they were subject to an arrest like this,” Spitzer said.
Potential class members were hesitant to offer sworn affidavits and step into the spotlight. Even if they knew they were actually innocent, they feared their employers and acquaintances could find out they had been accused of masturbating in public.
“There’s a stigma attached to that,” Spitzer said.
The suit involved extensive discovery. Attorneys deposed about 20 witnesses, including 12 PAPD officers at various ranks. Expert reports were exchanged.
One of the reports, analyzing arrest data from 2013 and 2017, showed that arrests for public lewdness at the bus terminal peaked in the summer months of 2014
John F. Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, concluded “the spike in public lewdness arrests was the result of intentional policy choices.”
“There does not appear to be any policy barring such behavior, nor any meaningful oversight to prevent such issues from arising,” Pfaff said in the report.
He pointed out arrests were more common around 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the terminal tends to be crowded, at a time when public masturbation is expected to occur less frequently.
The study of the data also found that arrests for public lewdness were driven by a small cohort of officers, with just five officers making 70% of the public lewdness arrests in 2014.
A second report by Jason Pierceson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield who studies the legal status of communities marginalized on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, concluded that circumstances of the arrests pointed to “historic patterns of discriminatory policing against men perceived to be gay or bisexual, and/or gender-nonconforming, and/or men who have sex with men.”
After discovery was over, both parties filed motions for summary judgment. That was a turning point in the case, Spitzer said.
Judge Koeltl concluded the plaintiffs had produced enough evidence to establish that a jury could find the officers engaged in a pattern of policing that was specifically targeting men perceived to be gay, bisexual or gender-nonconforming, without probable cause, on charges of public lewdness.
Judge Koeltl also found a jury could conclude that the pattern was a result of the PAPD’s failure to train or supervise officers. The judge allowed the case to head to trial.
Facing the prospect of a New York jury hearing the claims, the Port Authority agreed to engage in tortuous settlement negotiations, which began in March 2020 with the assistance of U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert W. Lehrburger.
“The Port Authority was very difficult to deal with,” Spitzer said. The agency resisted reforms and was opposed to compensate Mejia and Holden with damages.
But more than two years later, the parties found some common ground.
Bodden said The Legal Aid Society will monitor the implementation of the settlement’s terms.
“We, the lawyers, will make sure that their changes are implemented,” she said. “The Port Authority has agreed to inform us along the way of when they have accomplished all of the terms that they’ve agreed to.”
Failing that, the parties have a right to come back to court, she said.
As part of the settlement, arrest reports will have to include an individualized statement of probable cause. This change will ensure better accountability for officers.
“We think these are really historic reforms and steps that really needed to be taken,” Spitzer said. “These will have a far-reaching effect well beyond members of the LGBTQ community. There’s no question about that.”
–Editing by Lakshna Mehta. Graphics by Jason Mallory.