Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Remind Me To Sit Very Still In Public Bathrooms

The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Senator Larry Craig, Republican from Idaho, pled guilty to disorderly conduct after being arrested in an airport bathroom. It's probably a lost cause, but I have to say that, were it not for the guilty plea, the police report alone -- at least as excerpted in Roll Call -- would leave me with quite a few questions.

According to Roll Call, there had been numerous complaints that a particular men's public restroom was being used by gay men as a place of assignation. They dispatched Sergeant Dave Karsnia, in plainclothes, to investigate. Sergeant Joe Friday never had bathroom duty, but I guess Karsnia isn't so lucky in his assignments:

Karsnia entered the bathroom at noon that day and about 13 minutes after taking a seat in a stall, he stated he could see “an older white male with grey hair standing outside my stall.”

The man, who lingered in front of the stall for two minutes, was later identified as Craig.

“I could see Craig look through the crack in the door from his position. Craig would look down at his hands, ‘fidget’ with his fingers, and then look through the crack into my stall again. Craig would repeat this cycle for about two minutes,” the report states.

All right, having some old dude (or any dude) peering through the crack in a bathroom stall door is pretty creepy. However, the report leaves out some key facts: how many stalls were there, and were those other stalls occupied? Peering in the crack is intrusive, but if Karsnia was taking a stall for thirteen minutes and the other stalls were occupied, Craig might well have been "fidgeting" because he really had to go. Thirteen minutes is a long time to be in the bathroom, and maybe Craig was looking for a sign of imminent departure. Creepy, yes. Intrusive, yes. Worthy of a punch in the snoot, even. But not dispositive evidence that he wanted bathroom sex.

Once Craig got, uh, seated in the stall next to Sergeant Karsnia, he did something really incriminating:

Craig then entered the stall next to Karsnia’s and placed his roller bag against the front of the stall door.

“My experience has shown that individuals engaging in lewd conduct use their bags to block the view from the front of their stall,” Karsnia stated in his report.

Um, where the hell was he supposed to put his bag? You can't leave it outside, because it will be stolen. Or, even worse, mistaken for a bomb -- and if that happens, they'll probably arrest you on some spurious charge and try to make you pay the cost of calling out the bomb squad. Unless you are in a handicapped stall, there's usually not a lot of room for a bag. In front of you, against the stall door, is typically the only place to put it.

This is the equivalent of one of those drug profiles where they claim probable cause because somebody is in a hurry in an airport. Of course he put his bag in front of him. What's he supposed to do, hold it above his head?

After cleverly placing his bag in front of the stall door, he tapped his foot. Huh? Yes, he tapped his foot:

“At 1216 hours, Craig tapped his right foot. I recognized this as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct. Craig tapped his toes several times and moves his foot closer to my foot. I moved my foot up and down slowly. While this was occurring, the male in the stall to my right was still present. I could hear several unknown persons in the restroom that appeared to use the restroom for its intended use. The presence of others did not seem to deter Craig as he moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot which was within my stall area,” the report states.

I hate to sound naive, but I had absolutely no idea, prior to this incident, that tapping one's foot in a bathroom was a sign that one wished to engage in lewd conduct. Nor is it particularly suspicious. A guy tapping his foot in the bathroom might be listening to music on his iPod. Or he might be having a particularly uncomfortable or difficult bowel movement. As Mathew Yglesias observed, "surely tapping one's foot isn't a crime in Minnesota."

Following his foot-tapping, Craig made a hand gesture of some sort:

Craig then proceeded to swipe his hand under the stall divider several times, and Karsnia noted in his report that “I could ... see Craig had a gold ring on his ring finger as his hand was on my side of the stall divider.”

Typically, when I use the restroom in a sit-down fashion, I rest my forearms on my legs. However, I haven't asked other guys what they do with their arms, and it's possible some guys let their arms hang as they take a dump. If so, and if Craig has long arms, or if the toilet is one of those low-slung toilets, well his hands might well be visible under the divider.

After this series of events, the officer identified himself and ordered Craig to leave, which he did, apparently without flushing the toilet. Notably, however, there is no indication that Sergeant Karsnia checked the toilet for fecal matter prior to leaving.

I am not saying the guy is innocent. Maybe he really was cruising for lewd conduct in the bathroom of the Minneapolis Airport. Granted, the peering and the hand gestures are suspicious -- the foot-tapping less so. Nonetheless, everything he did really is susceptible to innocent explanation. None of it unequivocally indicate that he was asking for or offering sex. Couldn't the cops have stationed Sergeant Karsnia in the bathroom and waited until two guys are unambiguously going at it and then made an arrest? Do they have to plant an officer and do a sting operation?

Now, I am less inclined to sympathy in part because he did plead guilty to disorderly conduct rather than fight the charges. Clayton Cramer captured my first reaction when he said: "Craig claims it was a misunderstanding. If so, he should have vigorously challenged the charge--not pleaded guilty." Fair point. And it was politically stupid because he had to know it would come out, and that when it did a guilty plea would look really bad.

But it's possible he was, you know, scared. Imagine going to a public bathroom, doing nothing particularly incriminating, and then being arrested and charged with a sex crime. I don't know if a conviction for "lewd conduct" would require one to register as a sex offender, or what the possible penalty would be, but if it does require registration, well, there is a pretty powerful reason to plead guilty to a lesser offense.

I like to think that if I were arrested for pinching a loaf, I would fight the charges. But when you have a charge like that and an authoritative police officer testifying that tapping one's foot is a well-understood gay signal for anonymous blowjob action, it really is an uphill climb. And it's one of those cases where the accusation itself can bring out a "you pervert" reaction which makes a fair trial difficult. Given an opportunity to plead guilty to something innocuous, pay a fine, and get the hell out, I might very well take that option. And it might very well be a smart option.

Now, for a United States Senator, it's probably not the smart option. His only politically-viable option was to stand up, loudly proclaim his innocence, and fight like hell. He also had to accept that, pretty much no matter what happened, a lot of people were going to believe that he was trolling for gay sex in the bathroom. But I can see how he might be innocent, and maybe he took the plea out of fear, and I feel a certain sympathy for him.

Sure it's fun to pile on Senator Larry Craig. But I do think that there are some larger issues involved here, and I think it is troublesome for somebody -- anybody -- to be arrested on such ambiguous evidence and charged with a sex crime.

1 comment:

Clayton said...

Unfortunately, the Idaho Statesman article today gives reason to believe that this wasn't the first time.