A college student claiming he was wrongly arrested last year during a sting operation targeting gay men in a beach bathroom has filed a $5 million lawsuit against the city of Manhattan Beach and police officers for discrimination, false arrest and violation of civil rights.
In the lawsuit, filed in federal court last week, Charles Samuel Couch said he was taking care of a disabled boy last year when he was swept up in a police sex sting and lumped together in media reports with men charged with lewd conduct.
Couch, 22, of Hawthorne, has asked for $5 million for the “great humiliation, embarrassment and mental anguish” caused by the incident.
At the time of his arrest last March, Couch was employed by Cambrian Homecare in Long Beach, providing respite care to a 13-year-old boy with Prader-Willi Syndrome, which is characterized by mental retardation and incomplete sexual development.
According to the lawsuit, during a supervised walk in Manhattan Beach, the boy told Couch he needed to use the restroom, so the two headed toward the beach bathroom at Marine Avenue and The Strand. Unbeknownst to Couch, Manhattan Beach police officers were conducting a sting operation targeting gay males who were meeting up in the bathroom, which had been publicized on the Internet as a popular meet-up for sex.
Because of his condition, the boy in Couch’s care frequently spent an abnormally long time using the restroom. While the boy was in the stall farthest from the entrance, Couch sat down on a bench in the changing area of the restroom to wait for him.
Detective John Nasori entered the restroom, according to the lawsuit, and said, “Hello,” before entering the middle stall. A few minutes later, the child bolted from the stall, telling Couch, “There is a man looking at me in the stall.” Horrified, Couch told the boy, “Ignore him. Just keep walking.”
As the two walked out of the bathroom, Couch was confronted by five detectives in plain clothes “resembling thugs.” Presuming that they wanted to kidnap the boy, Couch grabbed the boy to protect him.
He was then tackled, choked and handcuffed, according to the lawsuit, and did not realize the men were actually police officers until he was taken to jail.
What followed was months of irreparable damage to Couch’s reputation and future, his attorney, Bruce Nickerson, said.
During hours of interrogation, Couch gave officers permission to retrieve the boy’s backpack from his car. Once inside the car, however, the police ransacked it without a warrant and took Couch’s backpack containing his laptop, Nickerson said.
Although Couch was given a detention certificate, stating that he was detained, not arrested, and there was insufficient evidence to file a criminal complaint, the lawsuit states, the police kept his laptop for several months, forcing him to withdraw from El Camino College because all of his schoolwork was on the computer. No evidence of child pornography or any other crime was ever found on Couch’s laptop.
A month after his arrest, Couch discovered that his photo had been posted on a local newspaper’s website and published nationwide, with headlines stating he had been arrested in a sex sting operation along with 17 other men.
Even though Couch earned almost straight A’s in high school and at El Camino, Nickerson said, when he applied for top four-year colleges, he hit a snag with the applications.
“They ask, ‘Have you been arrested?’ And he has to state this outrageous arrest,” he said.
His grades easily qualified him for the top schools in the country, but he is now at a lesser-ranked school in Philadelphia, according to Nickerson.
Couch planned to follow in the footsteps of his father — a defense contractor — and apply for internships in the industry.
“This is how kids get ahead in the world. After college, those internships morph into a full-time job,” Nickerson said. “He hasn’t been able to make one application. Once they get wind that he was arrested for lewd conduct and child endangerment, he’s history.”
Nickerson said he’s filed scores of lawsuits related to police sting operations and lewd conduct arrests, but Couch’s case is unique.
“All of my clients were gay men or perceived to be gay who went down to the bathroom to do some sort of cruising,” Nickerson said. “Now here is a case where my client is totally above reproach. … This is the first time a client didn’t do anything at all.”
In fact, Couch is an Eagle Scout, whose Eagle project was developing a respite program for families with children with genetic disorders, Nickerson said.
“Children with Prader-Willi Syndrome need exercise or they get overweight, get diabetes and will die. (Couch’s) program was to get them out of the house, walking and exercising. But they have to be supervised or they get lost,” he said.
Couch’s project turned into a full-time job with Cambrian Homecare, which he later lost because of the incident.
Nickerson is confident in his case.
The parents of the boy in Couch’s care immediately vouched for Couch and explained the details of their son’s syndrome.
In the police report, Nickerson said, the detective insinuated that the boy had been taken to the restroom, knowing about the lewd conduct going on inside.
“The innuendo is that the boy told my client that the cop did not do something sexual through the hole as the little boy was told would happen. That will not pass the smell test. That presumes the boy has a sex drive. The pediatrician has testified that (that’s not the case). Children with Prader-Willi Syndrome have shrunken testicles. There’s no sex drive possible for this little kid,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson said although it was not in the lawsuit, he will present another facet of the incident to the jury.
“When the cops saw my client and the little boy approaching the bathroom, they see a white college kid and a black 13-year-old, and they can think of no reason those two are approaching the bathroom except for sexual purposes,” he said. “They thought he was there to prostitute the kid.”
Eleven months after his detainment, Couch was charged with two counts of resisting arrest related to attempting to protect the boy during the incident, Nickerson said. All criminal charges were dismissed in August.
But the incident left an indelible mark on Couch — a soiled reputation, lost job, compromised future.
“This is a brilliant kid. He was once a happy-go-lucky college kid. Now he’s withdrawn, fearful; he keeps his nose to the grindstone. He doesn’t know who to trust and he’s leery about meeting new people in strange situations because look what happened to him,” Nickerson said. “It’s just appalling.”
Nickerson sent the city a demand letter three weeks before filing the lawsuit, asking them to file a motion with the court for a factual finding of innocence to start “my client’s rehabilitation of his reputation.”
“If the court grants the motion, they destroy all records and order the purging of files all over the place so my client can say truthfully that he was not arrested. (The city has) refused to do this,” he said.
The lawsuit also seeks punitive damages against Nasori for perjury and maliciousness.
The detective authorized the release of Couch’s photo and its posting on the Manhattan Beach police website indicating an arrest for lewd conduct after authorizing a certificate of detention, which states there was not sufficient evidence for an arrest for lewd conduct or child endangerment.
After issuing the certificate, Nasori swore under penalty of perjury that Couch’s laptop had to be searched because “it was used as the means of committing a felony,” the lawsuit read.
City officials directed questions to Eugene Ramirez, the special counsel hired to represent the city in the case.
Because the suit was recently filed, Ramirez said, he still has not talked to anyone involved in the incident, and he must gather relevant reports and begin the discovery process.
“We have to determine if there was any misconduct whatsoever,” he said. “Pending that, there’s no reason to believe anyone did anything inappropriate.”
The city has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit. Since the suit was filed in federal court, all parties will be required to undergo a settlement conference, Ramirez said. If the parties don’t settle, the case could go to a jury trial.