Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gay Couple Wins False Arrest Suit


Gay man wins $45,000 after false arrest
Plaintiff claimed police targeted him for being gay

AUG. 27, 2009

Claude Lessard, the plaintiff in a 2003 case of false arrest at John U. Lloyd State Park in Dania Beach, is taking home $45,000 from the state of Florida.

Lessard, an openly gay local junior high school teacher, filed suit against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and park officer David Pius in March 2005, after being arrested at the park for what he said was a case of anti-gay bias. His suit included charges of false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution stemming from an incident that took place in the park in July 2003.

The state, without admitting fault, decided to pay Lessard the $45,000 for damages rather than continue to fight the case.

Lessard’s attorney views this as not only a victory for gay men who are harassed at public beaches and parks, but also a legal step that gives gays another right in the fight for marriage equality.

"Our office is grateful we could help remind law enforcement authorities that gay men will no longer tolerate abuses of their civil rights, and when those rights are violated unjustly, the State will be held financially accountable,” said Norm Kent, Lessard’s attorney. "The settlement is ample proof that the government tried to whitewash and cover up the case from the start, but through the tenacity of our office, and courage of our client, we saw it to a just end. The amount they paid showed it was not just nuisance value. "

The arrest occurred during the afternoon of July 23, 2003. Lessard said he was walking along a trail in the park when he saw a man being arrested. At the time, Lessard said he was mindful of newspaper articles in which numerous gay men had alleged that they were harassed, cited for dubious trespassing violations and falsely arrested in the park.

According to Lessard, when he encountered a man along the trail whom he thought was just a park visitor, he commented to him, “Watch out. They’re arresting someone over there.”

The man Lessard encountered turned out to be a police officer. He accused Lessard of obstructing an undercover operation in the park. Park officers had been conducting undercover patrols because of reports of sexual activity in the park. But Lessard said he was there only to enjoy the beach and park on a sunny day. Lessard thinks he was targeted for arrest simply because he was a gay man in the park, according to the lawsuit.

Lessard was charged with “obstruction of justice” and jailed for 15 hours. His car was towed, and he had to pay $136 to retrieve it. Later the state dropped the charge but Lessard was so outraged about how he was treated that he sued the state for false arrest, which was reported by the Blade in 2004 (then called Express Gay News). An internal investigation by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in 2004 concluded that there was no evidence that park officers acted inappropriately, violated any statute or policy, or targeted anyone in the park based on sexual orientation. Along with the monetary award, the case also establishes significant victory for gay couples seeking legal rights for their partnerships.

Lessard’s domestic partner of 27 years, Jocelyn Goulet, is also named as a co-plaintiff in this case; as a result, the judge also set case-law for Broward County establishing gay couples, who are registered as domestic partners, the right to sue together under “loss of consortium” just as straight couples would. Loss of consortium laws state that if one spouse is injured and is suing for damages, their spouse can also sue because they cannot complete their marital duties. Lessard is currently out of the country and is unavailable for comment.

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