Bruce Nickerson, gay rights legal champion, dies at 80

Bruce Nickerson

Attorney Bruce Nickerson sits in the hallway of the Torrance Courthouse and shares good news with his client, Charles Samuel Couch, July 21, 2017. The judge granted Nickerson’s request for a finding of factual innocence. Photo: Q Voice News photo.

Bruce Nickerson, a legal lion who spent decades winning cases for gay men throughout California who had been discriminated against and falsely arrested by law enforcement in gay-sex sting operations, has died.

One of his victories was a historic ruling in Long Beach in 2016, when a superior court judge threw out a lewd conduct arrest by the police.

Nickerson died at a hospital Saturday in Redwood City after a brief illness, said Carlos Scott Lopez, Nickerson’s domestic partner.

Bruce Nickerson was 80.

Nickerson previously had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, but it’s unknown if that contributed to his death, said Lopez, who is awaiting cause of death information from the coroner.

A colleague found Nickerson unconscious in his San Carlos office on the afternoon of Feb. 4. He was rushed to a local hospital, where he regained consciousness, but passed away Saturday morning.

“Bruce was a civil rights lawyer, and a human rights lawyer,” Lopez tells Q Voice News. “LGBTQ rights are civil rights and human rights.”

“Bruce was devoted to LGBTQ rights,” Lopez says. “He would not give up. He was working and fighting up until the very end. When I talked to him Friday, he said he would be in the office Saturday afternoon.

“Bruce was relentless and intensely passionate,” Lopez says. “It drove him until the very end. He had a passion for justice.”

Long Beach police’s dark history of discriminating against gay men

Gay rights champion

Over the years, Bruce Nickerson helped numerous clients avoid a criminal record or a place on California’s list of registered sex offenders, along side rapists, child murderers, and sexual predators.

In many cases, defendants faced counts of not only lewd conduct, but also indecent exposure. If they were found guilty of indecent exposure, a lifetime registration on the sex offender list was required.

Many victims of these police sting operations (most of them closeted gay men) simply paid the fine and accepted a probation plea to avoid possibly having their lives ruined. But the few who fought back and wanted their day in court, faced the wrath and full weight of aggressive prosecutors, legal experts said.

Nickerson, however, knew how these sting operations worked and waged war against them.

But early in his career, Nickerson faced serious legal problems. His law license was suspended twice, and he served jail time for helping an accused child molester flee the country in 1988. Nickerson had said it was a mistake that haunted him for decades.

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Childhood of pain

Born June 21, 1941, Bruce Nickerson was raised in Modesto. His father was a former Golden Gloves boxer, and his mother was a Pentelcoastal minister.

He never came out to his parents; however, they thought something was not quite right with him, even though he earned A’s in school and always behaved.

His father hit him, and his mother tried to beat the demons out of him.

“The abuse Bruce suffered and received as a child served as fuel to defend gay men in the court room for their false arrests,” said Stephanie Loftin, a Long Beach attorney who worked with Bruce on several cases over 30 years. “It made him mad.”

Nickerson received a degree in economics, with honors, from Stanford University and a doctor of jurisprudence from Golden Gate University.

Nickerson had operated a solo legal practice and often collaborated with attorneys addressing civil rights issues and lewd conduct cases.

His focus on lewd conduct emerged after pursuing several cases addressing such conduct issues at adult bookstores in the early 1980s in and around the Bay Area.

Over the years, Bruce Nickerson recognized the pattern police used in the sting operations.

Gay-sex sting operations

Here’s the scenario. The police organize a lewd conduct sting operation in a public place, usually a park or bathroom frequented by gay men, or an adult bookstore, and send in a decoy, who initiates contact with an unsuspecting man. 

The decoy conveys nonverbal, flirtatious signals — nodding his head, raising his eyebrows, and simulating grabbing his crotch — that indicate an interest in sexual conduct with the target.

Also, sometimes the decoy would look over the top of a private stall to view the man inside.

Shortly after the unsuspecting man reciprocates the decoy’s advances and shows his penis, the decoy leaves. Another undercover cop rushes onto the scene and arrests the man. The decoy claims he was offended by the victim’s advances and books the victim on suspicion of lewd conduct.

5 years later, man falsely accused of lewd conduct by Manhattan Beach police gets his name cleared

California law on lewd conduct

California law on lewd conduct makes these sting operations controversial and problematic, legal experts said.

According to the state Supreme Court, if the conduct takes place in a public place, and the defendant has a reasonable belief that nobody would be offended, it’s not lewd conduct, and the state has no interest in prosecuting the case.

In other words, when the decoy initiates the flirting, and the other man responds, it’s not lewd conduct, and it’s not illegal.

The man has a reasonable belief that the decoy will not be offended because he made the frist move, and followed up with additional indications that he is interested in sexual contact.

That’s been the law for more than 40 years, since 1979, when the California Supreme Court ruled in  Pryor vs. Municipal Court.

Nickerson accumulated a long list of victories against prosecutors and police officials who engaged in these tactics. He won cases in Orange County, San Jose, Fresno, Manhattan Beach, and Long Beach.

As a result of Nickeron’s legal wins, many agencies throughout California abandoned the gay sex sting operations.

California Supreme Court victories

Two of Nickerson’s career highlights took place at the California Supreme Court when he helped create new law. In 1988, in People v. Superior Court, the high court ruled that traditional interpretations of loitering around a toilet statute were unconstitutional.

Eight years later, his victory at the California Supreme Court in Baluyut v. Superior Court that made it easier for defendants to argue police had discriminated against them during an arrest.

Nickerson was lauded by his fellow attorneys and legal activists for his achievements.

“Bruce was a champion for gay civil rights,” Loftin said. “He was a lion protector of men who were falsely arrested for lewd conduct. He did more to change the lewd conduct laws in California than anybody.”

Victory in Long Beach

Nickerson and Loftin collaborated on a Long Beach case that resulted in a historic ruling in 2016. In Moroney v. People, a Long Beach Superior Court judge issued a scathing ruling against Long Beach police, saying they violated Rory Moroney’s Constitutional rights and targeted him for arrest because he is gay. The judge also criticized the police for their problematic tactics and the prosecutor for portraying gay men as pedophiles.

The ruling even forced the Long Beach Police Department and City Prosecutor Doug Haubert to change their procedures on lewd conduct operations and enforcement.

“Bruce gave me hope in a time of darkness. He gave me courage when I was at my weakest,” Moroney said. “He knew my truth and fought for me relentlessly.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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