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Halim Dhanidina talks historic Long Beach lewd conduct case

Halim Dhanidina did something that lawyers and LGBTQ+ advocates in Long Beach had attempted for more than 50 years —  He helped put the nail in the coffin of the Police Department’s odious practice of targeting and discriminating against gay men in lewd conduct stings.

It was an established tactic that the department had used for more than 100 years, dating to 1914.

A play was even written about this dark chapter in Long Beach history, “The Twentieth Century Way.”

Halim Dhanidina

Halim Dhanidina’s role was vital. He was the first Los Angeles Superior Court judge at the Long Beach courthouse to ever dismiss one of these cases during a preliminary hearing.

His scathing April 2016 ruling against the city’s police department and prosecutor’s office said their discriminatory actions violated the Equal Protection Clause of both the California and U.S. constitutions.

“The Moroney case is the clearest example of a case that I handled as a judge that involved how society can let a minority group down by allowing unequal treatment to occur of that community by law enforcement,” says Halim Dhanidina, who retired from the bench earlier this year.

“It undermines confidence in our institutions and undermines confidence in the court and in the Constitution itself,” he says.

It was a monumental judicial victory for the LGBTQ+ community.

The ruling also helped dismantle the city’s lewd conduct scheme, essentially forcing the police department to stop making the arrests and City Prosecutor Doug Haubert from taking the cases to court. In August 2017 — more than a year after Dhanidina’s ruling — Long Beach Police changed their procedures for handling lewd conduct investigations.

Historic case

The beginning of the end started with what Haubert, at the time, had called “a garden variety lewd conduct case.” In this soon-to-be historic case, People v. Moroney, Rory Moroney was the defendant.

His attorneys were two legal powerhouses: Bruce Nickerson, a renowned civil rights lawyer, and Long Beach attorney Stephanie Loftin, who had spent more than 20 years challenging lewd conduct arrests.

Bruce Nickerson, gay rights legal champion, dies at 80

Nickerson and Loftin asked then-judge Halim Dhanidina to grant their motion for discovery of police documents, including arrest records, that they suspected would shed light on their suspicions — This lewd conduct arrest at a public bathroom was another example of the police department’s pattern of targeting and discriminating against gay men and using an officer from the vice unit as a decoy.

Loftin previously had made the same request many times to other Long Beach judges over the years in similar cases, but had been denied the documents.

Dhanidina, however; approved their motion.

“I was aware that there had been previous attempts to challenge some of these sting operations,” Dhanidina says. “But where they usually were kneecapped was at an early stage where there was a motion for discovery from the state or from the police, and the courts denied those motions.

“The only real way you can evaluate whether there is selective prosecution or not, is by looking at how other similarly situated cases are handled. You have to look generally at how those cases are being treated in the law enforcement community,” he says.

“Frankly, when I granted the discovery motion, I had no idea what we would learn about the systemic practices of the Long Beach Police Department.

“I have to say, I was a little bit surprised, as well as disappointed, to learn the evidence of prejudice and disparate treatment,” Dhanidina says. “I just didn’t think that in this day and age, this was a law enforcement tactic. It seemed very anachronistic, like something that you would read about in a history book, not something that was ongoing.”

City prosecutor won’t comment

Halim Dhanidina based his blistering ruling on the 14th Amendment, but its Equal Protection Clause is under scrutiny after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its June ruling in ​​Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Six years after Dhanidina’s ruling, neither the city of Long Beach nor the police department or Haubert have publicly apologized to Moroney or the LGBTQ+ community for the discriminatory tactics and prosecutions that often portrayed gay men as sexual deviants and pedophiles, sometimes branding them with life-altering criminal records.

Reached by text, Haubert refused to comment on his office’s role in the lewd conduct cases.

“I will not have a conversation with you unless it is off the record first. And I want to be very clear that it is completely off the record,” he said in a text message. “I understand if you do not want to speak with me.”

Haubert was asked twice why he wanted to talk off the record, but didn’t reply.

Legal credentials

Halim Dhanidina retired from the bench earlier this year, and in April, was named a partner at the Los Angeles criminal defense firm Werksman, Jackson & Quinn.

Dhanidina served three years as an associate justice for Second District of the California Court of Appeal, making him the first South Asian American to be appointed to the California Court of Appeal, and the first Muslim appellate-level judge in the United States. 

Dhanidina also served six years (2012-2018) on the Los Angeles County Superior Court, making him the first Muslim judge ever appointed in California history.

Prior to his judicial service, Halim Dhanidina was a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County for 14 years where he prosecuted violent and high profile cases for the hardcore gang and major crimes divisions.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Halim Dhanidina, 52, talks about threats to the 14th Amendment, “homophobia” at the Long Beach Police Department, and reaction after his landmark Long Beach ruling.

Here are some excerpts.

 Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade

Clarence Thomas and the conservative justices on the Supreme Court feel the wind at their back. Certainly, they know that they have the numbers,” Halim Dhanidina says. “The Dobbs decision, that’s just a harbinger of more to come. I would fully expect a concerted assault now on all rights related to LGBTQ civil rights in this country.

“What Justice Thomas was doing was basically sending out an open invitation for litigation on those fronts. Because the rationale that Thomas and at least four other justices agreed to in the Dobbs decision could be used to overturn legal precedent that the court had that protects LGBTQ rights, under the theory that the concept of substantive due process is now disfavored by a majority of the court.”

 Threats to equal protection

“I can’t even believe I’m talking about it in this way,” Dhanidina says. “For generations, students in law school have taken constitutional law. A significant portion of their constitutional law class is dedicated to the cases that established and expanded the contours of substantive due process under the 14th Amendment, which basically is used to protect privacy rights and civil rights.

“What Thomas has said in Dobbs is basically the whole category of protection is now inherently suspect, and should not be used as a basis for the rights as established in some of the cases that he pointed out, like Lawrence v. Texas and the Obergefell decision, for example.

“Thomas is sending a message to future litigants to basically acknowledge what critics of the Dobbs decision have said, although he’s doing it proudly, rather than in alarm, right,” Dhanidina says. “He’s saying, Look, based on this decision, and the rationale here, there is no privacy protection under this notion of substantive due process. The protections that individuals enjoy should be those as explicitly understood, historically, by the framers of the Constitution. His attitude is, Bring these lawsuits, because based on our rationale here in Dobbs, you’ll win.”

Threats to privacy

“We know that there are now at least five if not six justices on the court that don’t believe privacy protections exist to any extent greater than they were understood by the framers of the Constitution hundreds of years ago. That’s alarming,” Dhanidina says.

“The court has reversed precedent before but always to expand civil rights. This is the first time  in history that the court has reversed precedent to constrict civil rights.”

Supreme Court ignores prevailing norms

“It’s certainly a question of equality,” Dhanidina says. “The court hasn’t always come up with the right decisions at the right time. But if you look at it from a distance, you can see over time, civil rights in this country have expanded, from a legal standpoint, because there’s been a willingness by the court to take into consideration prevailing norms of decency as society develops.

“Now the court is basically shutting that idea,” Dhanidina says. “Prevailing norms are irrelevant to whatever norms existed at the time of the ratification of the Constitution a couple hundred years ago. That’s not a world many people today would want to live in frankly.”

People v. Moroney

“I’ll be completely honest with you. When Bruce (Nickerson) showed up in my court, on what appeared to be a very typical misdemeanor filing, with a very substantive legal motion as to why he needed discovery in order to bring this equal protection challenge, I was very cynical,” Dhanidina says. “Part of me felt like, Why are we making a mountain out of a molehill here? Isn’t this just the type of case that can be easily disposed of one way or the other?

“The more I thought about it, and the more I read the briefs, and I started reading the cases, I realized that the only way you’re ever going to prove this type of selective prosecution is to get the type of discovery that Bruce asked for, that had been denied in so many other cases,” Dhanidina says.

“I could not justify shutting down this challenge by refusing to allow an examination of the discovery that was being requested.”

“Once it became clear that this case was going to be much bigger than how it initially appeared, I spent a lot of time reading every conceivable case on equal protection, lewd conduct, etc. The most important thing was to get it right,” Dhanidina says. “The more evidence I heard, and the more law I reviewed, the clearer it came to the point where it was not a difficult decision to reach.”

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

 ‘Homophobia was inescapable’

“I’m saying this as someone who was a prosecutor for 14 years,” Halim Dhanidina says. “When I saw the way in which the police officers admitted on the stand how they were trained to write their report, what language they were trained to include, the homophobia was inescapable.

“A perfect example is the police were trained to write about the proximity of the public restroom to the local school, even when the sting operation was not on a school day or not during school hours or without any children present at all,” Dhanidina says.

“What other purposes were served from talking about where a school is in relation to the restroom except to sort of raise the specter that, They’re gay men and sexual predators.”

Police decoys cruised victims

“The cruising evidence was actually very enlightening to me. it sort of laid bare the obvious fact that if you’re a gay man in a public restroom, the last thing in the world you would do would be to make any kind of overtly sexual overture to someone, unless you are 100% positive it was going to be well received and reciprocated,” Dhanidina says.

“Otherwise, you’re alone in this restroom with another adult male. You are risking life and limb.

“The full concept of cruising was known by the police as well,” Dhanidina says. “They manipulated it in order to convince their suspects that everything was fine, and everything would be well received until it wasn’t.”

“It’s incremental. It’s not just a question of one person gets the signal, and the next person reciprocates,” Dhanidina says. “Four or five different back and forth exchanges occur before anything else happens. It also seemed, to me, there was a concerted effort to make sure that there was privacy, that no one else was going to be around.

“As someone who has used male public restrooms before, I’m very aware of how people typically behave in the restroom. They’re in and out, as quickly as possible. You don’t spend a single second there longer than you need to,” Dhanidina says.

“Here, we have people who are in there for several minutes, exchanging glances and head nods and greetings. It’s clear, very clear, that the police were manipulating their target in order to be able to make the types of arrests they wanted to make.”

‘Mean spirited’ Long Beach Police

“It is true that there are parts of the Long Beach community that are very welcoming to people from all backgrounds, including the gay community, but law enforcement was not really in touch with that spirit,” Dhanidina says. “It was disappointing for me to see the extent to which the law enforcement tactics were just mean spirited.

“I saw in the evidence how the officers would not only create the necessary elements for a crime to occur so that they can make an arrest, but also, at times, take certain actions to encourage the crimes to be elevated in seriousness,” Dhanidina says.

“For example, someone is touching themselves, without exposing themselves. That is a crime. It’s not a registerable offense. At that time, an officer has the right under the law to make an arrest,” Dhanidina says.

“But what the officers would do is encourage the behavior to escalate until the conduct was such that the arrest could be for a registerable offense, a more serious offense.

“I thought, In what other contexts does this happen? Does a police officer happen upon a physical fight, and just stand back and wait until it becomes a murder? No. They don’t do that. They typically enforce the law at the time it’s broken.

“It showed that what they were trying to do was not only cause crimes to occur, but also cause more serious crimes that could have lasting permanent detrimental effects on the suspect in ways that struck me as very mean spirited,” Dhanidina says.

Discovery evidence

“The evidence of discovery that we saw in the case showed that there have been other areas of the city and other parts of Long Beach where there were complaints of sexual activity in public and lewd conduct in public,” Dhanidina says. “Not all of it was male on male. Much of it was male and female.

“But the evidence showed that over the past five years, not one sting operation, not one, was done in any of the areas where there were complaints of male on female lewd conduct.

“And beyond that, another thing they were trained to write in their report was that they were responding and orchestrating this thing in response to citizen complaints, but the particular location involved in the sting did not have one single complaint in the last five years. They couldn’t dig up even one,” Dhanidina says. “As a judge, that was particularly offensive because that was law enforcement intentionally perpetrating a fraud on the court.”

Actions of Prosecutor Doug Haubert

“Until the discovery came in, there was no real reason for any individual prosecutor to know what the history had been over the past several years as it relates to citizen complaints, as it relates to commonality of these reports. The prosecutors usually only deal with what’s right in front of them,” Dhanidina says.

“But I would have expected once they received all of that discovery, as well as the defense, they would have gone through an independent analysis of it and determined that these are not cases that we can stand behind. For whatever reason, they chose not to.”

“It was also surprising because if this really was an honest disagreement of the meaning and the state of the law, I would have fully expected my ruling to be appealed. It wasn’t,” Dhanidina says. “I didn’t get to see any evidence different from what the prosecutors knew, and yet, they still fought to the bitter end. Then they had an opportunity to appeal it and didn’t. It’s very questionable.”

After the ruling

“Ironically, some of the prosecutors I knew actually thanked me for the ruling,” Dhanidina says. “Those aren’t the kinds of cases that they signed up for. They really wanted to focus on making society safer from actual criminals, not to discriminate or harass a minority group.”

Ruling read from the bench

“When you’re a judge, and especially if you’re involved in a controversial case, you can’t make any public statements about it, certainly not to the media,” Dhanidina says. “You can’t explain what your thinking is, or your rationale or defend it. You can’t defend yourself. All you can do is what you say on the record.

“I wanted to make sure that the record was clear. That it wouldn’t be misreported or misconstrued in any way. I wanted to read exactly word for word what the ruling was while we were still in the hearing, so that I could answer any questions in advance. That was sort of my goal.”

No city official has apologized

“I’m sure there’s a certain degree of political calculation that’s involved in all of this,” Dhanidina says. “I thought that I had read somewhere that the police announced that they were no longer going to be conducting those things. Maybe, as far as they were concerned, they resolved the issue in their mind. 

“But then that does raise the prospect of the countless individuals who had been arrested and convicted and became registered (sex offenders) as a result of those practices over the years,” Dhanidina says. “There probably should be some sort of redress for them, having those cases reopened or doing something.”

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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