TORRANCE — Civil rights attorney Bruce Nickerson scored a huge victory Friday at the Torrance Courthouse for a former Hawthorne man who was falsely arrested in 2012 by Manhattan Beach police during an absurd, undercover lewd conduct sting that targeted gay men.
It also marked the second time in 14 months that the Bay Area-lawyer, who identifies as gay, has traveled to the region and won a notable ruling related to police tactics targeting gay men.
Inside the Torrance courtroom, Judge Amy Carter granted Nickerson’s motion for a finding of factual innocence for Charles Samuel Couch, who has been waiting five years for his name to be cleared. The finding not only means no evidence of a crime existed, but also that all files related to the Charles’ case must be destroyed.
“Finally, justice has been done and an honest man’s name has been restored,’ Nickerson said in the hallway shortly after the ruling was made. “If anyone ever asks if he has been arrested, he can truthfully now answer no.”
Carter’s ruling will help end Charles long-winding nightmare to clear his name.
STING OPERATION FIASCO
At the time of his arrest in March 2012, Charles, 26, who is heterosexual, was the caregiver for a 13-year-old mentally disabled boy, who needed to use the restroom.
However, when undercover detective John Nasori saw the two enter the public restroom that was under surveillance, he assumed it was for sexual reasons. Instead of identifying himself as a police officer and doing minimal intelligence gathering, Nasori catapulted to absurd conclusions and had Charles arrested.
Without calling the boy’s parents to investigate if Charles was his caregiver, the police detained and questioned him for hours, and then called the boy’s parents — who vouched for Charles, and the police released him due to insufficient evidence of child endangerment or lewd conduct.
INSULT TO INJURY
But more than a month later, the police added insult to injury when Charles was branded a suspected sex offender. The names, photos, and dates of birth of the 18 men, including Charles, who were arrested by the police in the undercover sex sting operation were given to Los Angeles-area media outlets.
Ever since, Charles has had an uphill battle and endured a horrifying ordeal to clear his name.
‘THANK GOD IT’S OVER’
Charles’ parents, Shirley and Larry Couch, sat quietly in the courtroom. Shirley had tears in her eyes and listened to Carter say the words that she had been patiently waiting more than five years to hear.
Seconds after Carter announced her decision, Shirley wept a little.
Outside the courtroom, Shirley and Larry, expressed relief.
“I’m glad it’s over, and he got his good reputation back,” Larry said.
Shirley was “beyond words with how happy I am. It’s been 1,960 days, five years, four months and 12 days. That’s a long time for someone to be innocent.”
Nickerson sat on a bench outside the courtroom and called his client to share the news. Charles moved to Philadelphia a few years ago and just graduated from Temple University, paying for his tuition with money he received in a settlement from the City of Manhattan Beach.
“Charles said, Thank God it’s over,” Nickerson said. “It’s been a tremendous ordeal, but he stayed with it. He refused to agree to anything except total acquittal.”
Which Charles already thought he had. Charles sued Manhattan Beach in 2013 for discrimination, false arrest and violation of his civil rights. In 2014, they agreed to a settlement that included $175,000 and a finding of factual innocence that was supported and signed by Police Chief Eve Irvine, according to court documents.
DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY FLOUNDERS
Before Carter made her ruling, Los Angeles County deputy district attorney Walter Quinteros-Perello argued against the finding of factual innocence.
Two weeks earlier, on July 7, Carter, who expressed concerns about the length of time the case had dragged on and said “compelling evidence” existed to grant the motion for factual innocence, gave Quinteros-Perello two weeks to subpoena any potential witness.
On Friday morning, Quinteros-Perello said he couldn’t find Nasori, the arresting officer at the time who is retired, and had zero witnesses.
‘I AM MAKING MY RULING’
Instead of resting his case and allowing the factual motion to proceed, the deputy district attorney held on with white knuckles and made a lame and clumsy attempt to justify all the injustices Charles had endured.
When Quinteros-Perello finished, Carter reminded him that not only did he have no witnesses, but also that the police had agreed to the finding of factual innocence.
“The police are in the best position to tell the court,” Carter said.
Quinteros-Perello tried to interrupt the judge not once, but twice. Carter shut him down.
“I am making my ruling,” she said. “I’m granting the finding of factual innocence.”
Larry and Shirley said the five-year nightmare has caused stress and agony and scarred the entire family.
“My son will never forget it. It’s on his mind every single day,” Shirley said. “This ruling might help. But if there’s a policeman behind him, he feels fear.”
Larry added: “It’s changed us all, the way we look at police, the way we look at the system.
“It’s like a vicious attack on an innocent man’s character. It’s like a dog with a bone that won’t let it go,” Larry said. “For what purpose? Just to save face for the system? I don’t understand.”
Q Voice News has not been able to reach Quinteros-Perello or Irene Wakabayashi, head deputy in the Torrance office for the Los Angeles County District Attorney, to explain why they vigorously pursued this case.