Gautreaux issues apology, begins push to have La. law erased

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Manchac Park on Jefferson Highway on Monday in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Manchac Park on Jefferson Highway on Monday in Baton Rouge.

East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux apologized Monday for a series of sting operations in which his deputies used an unconstitutional anti-sodomy law to arrest men agreeing to have consensual sex with undercover agents.

Amid a firestorm of criticism, Gautreaux said he would push to have the unenforceable portions of the law removed from the state’s criminal statutes — an effort some lawmakers said would be an uphill battle.

“Our agency made mistakes,” Gautreaux said in a statement, adding it was not the Sheriff’s Office’s intention to target gay men. “We will learn from them and we will take measures to ensure it does not happen again.”

The sheriff, who has been sharply criticized over his use of department resources, also said he has begun “a comprehensive evaluation of undercover operations made by our deputies” and vowed to “make changes to ensure better supervision, training and guidance.

“I have informed all employees of the Sheriff’s Office they are not to use these unconstitutional laws.”

The apology came amid a widening controversy sparked by the arrest of at least a dozen men since 2011 who were booked into Parish Prison on counts of attempted crime against nature. District Attorney Hillar Moore III has said his office declined to prosecute the cases because the men had committed no criminal violations.

The men had met undercover deputies at Manchac Park and were taken into custody after discussing or agreeing to have sex — usually at a private residence nearby. Public sex and the solicitation of “unnatural carnal copulation” for compensation are illegal, but those elements weren’t part of the cases in question.

Though it remains on the books, Louisiana’s ban on oral sex and anal sex was invalidated 10 years ago by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The arrests have drawn national attention and stirred outrage among civil-rights advocates and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But state lawmakers and political observers predicted Monday there would be little legislative appetite to amend the antiquated anti-sodomy law or remove it from the criminal code.

“I think it’s a non-starter,” said Pearson Cross, who heads the University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science department. “I just can’t imagine anybody championing this in a legislature as conservative as this one.”

Gautreaux’s push could gain traction among some Democrats, Cross allowed, but he noted the next session remains several months off and said the fervor over the arrests will likely subside by then.

In his statement, Gautreaux said he has been in contact with Moore “to improve communication between our offices.” He also has contacted lawmakers and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association to discuss removing the invalid language from the statute.

The association’s executive director, Michael A. Ranatza, said in a statement that Gautreaux “has indicated to me that it is his intent to bring this matter before our association’s legislative committee.”

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said changing the crime against nature law would be difficult even if it were not a controversial issue.

“I don’t know if it’s anti-gay in the Legislature as much as they fear a fair amount of people who hold anti-gay sentiments,” Claitor said.

State Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Pearl River, said repeal would not be in line with “the sentiments of the majority of the people that I represent, and I agree with them on this.

“It would very difficult in this state, as conservative of family values as we have, for the legislators of this state to overturn that law.”

Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said repealing the law “would be good, but the real issue is that the sheriff apparently has not been properly training his staff to know what laws are enforceable and which ones are not.

“Courts strike down laws either in whole or in part all the time,” she said. “The root of the problem is that they should have known better.”

Gautreaux, who did not respond to interview requests Monday, said in his statement that he also is planning to meet with Capital City Alliance, the Baton Rouge-based LGBT advocacy group, “to further the dialogue between law enforcement and the LGBT community.

“Rather than make excuses or point fingers,” Gautreaux said, “we think it is most beneficial for our community as a whole to learn from this and move forward together in a positive direction to ensure the peace and safety of every individual we are here to serve.”

Mark Ballard of the Capitol new bureau contributed to this report.