Jun 062013

mengelsuitIs High School Teacher SLPD’s latest victim?

Earlier this week, the San Leandro Police Department issued a press release announcing the filing of charges for “possession of child pornography” against Rick Styner, a teacher at San Leandro High School.  In one day, the reputation of a man that, by all accounts, had been honorable and respectful of his students, has been destroyed, possibly beyond repair.  I don’t think any of us can imagine the social opprobrium the Styner family is experiencing right now.  And yet, a careful reading of the facts as reported in the news stories do not show any actual criminal conduct by Styner.   Regardless of what happens to the charges, whether they are dismissed or whether Styner is tried and found innocent, his life and career has been ruined by Chief Sandra Spagnoli and the San Leandro Police Department.  And he is not the only one.

False Arrests at Marina Park

Last year, the SLPD issued another press release, featuring the pictures of two older men and accusing them of loitering around the bathrooms at Marina Park to solicit men for sex.   The community reacted immediately, calling these men every name in the book and instantly assuming they were guilty.  Even I, while arguing that their conduct was not a crime unless they actually intended for someone else to unwittingly witness a sex act, assumed that the basic facts of the press release were true: the men were hanging out around the bathroom hoping to pick up other men for sex.  I was wrong in making that assumption.  Simply put, the SLPD’s press release was a lie.

The lie was most egregious in the case of Michael Woody.  Woody had stopped at the parking lot near the Marina Park bathrooms with the intention of using the facilities for their intended purpose.  An undercover SLPD officer was loitering around and tried to engage Woody in conversation.  When the officer followed Woody into the bathroom, Woody became understandably uncomfortable and decided to leave.  The officer followed him to his car and arrested him as he was turning on the engine.   Woody had never indicated any interest in engaging with the police officer on any activities.  No charges were filed against him.

Steven Mengel, on the other hand, did show interest when a twenty-something plain-clothes officer Matthew Barajas approached him as he was sitting inside his car, parked in a public street, and propositioned him.  They made a date to meet the next day at noon near the bathrooms.  When Mengel arrived, Barajas showed up with a “friend”, now identified as Sargent Brian Anthony.  They agreed that Anthony would serve as a “look out”, making sure nobody came, while Mengel gave Barajas a hand job in the bathroom stall.  Before he had the opportunity to do so, he was arrested.

As I mentioned after the men’s arrest, California law only criminalizes sexual conduct in public, when it’s done under the reasonable belief that it could be witnessed by others who would be offended at the sight.  Clearly, that was not the case in this case as officer Anthony’s “job” was precisely to make sure that nobody would witness the act.  Disregarding the law, the SLPD officers not only arrested Mengel but they issued a press release falsely accusing him of loitering with the intent of engaging in illegal acts.  He was actually charged with this offense – which suggests to me that we should give little credence to any charges the Alameda County District Attorney levies against anyone -, but the charges were dismissed by the court.

Unfortunately, it will ultimately be San Leandro residents that have to pay for the SLPD’s misconduct – the city has been hit by a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Mengel, Woody, and all other men who have been subjected to similar actions by the SLPD.   While the lawsuit does not specify an amount for damages, similar lawsuits have resulted in settlements in the six and seven figures.  So much for Mayor Cassidy’s argument that the City should give Chief Spagnoli a raise because she would save the city money on lawsuits.

The Styner Case

(Update: the actual court documents in this case show that the charges are bogus).

What happened in the Marina Park should warn us against jumping to conclusions on the Styner case as well.  Indeed, a close examination of the facts on this case show that it’s not only weak but suspicious.

Rick Styner is a Computer Science teacher at San Leandro High School.   On April 16, he was teaching his class how to transfer files between devices, when he accidentally clicked on a file in his dropbox folder, opening a nude photograph of himself.  The police have not described this photograph, but according to what a student of Styner’s wrote on Facebook, it actually focused on the tattoos that Styner sports on his thigh – he gets one after he completes a marathon -, and only incidentally showed his genitalia.  *Update*.  After writing this part I looked through Styner’s facebook page and found a picture of the tattoo.  It’s actually on his right hip, and while this particular picture is cropped, it’s reasonable to believe that the original might have shown part of his genitalia and might have been the one the students were exposed to.  It’s clear that the purpose of this picture was to show off the tattoo.  Styner got it in August 2012; the little balls signify the marathon’s he’s completed, the number signifies the distance of the marathon (26.2 miles) and the phrase means “will run” in a Tolkien language.

Immediately after this incident, Styner notified the school authorities and surrendered his school-issued laptop computer.  An unidentified school district employee proceeded to look through the computer where s/he allegedly found material that s/he considered to be disturbing.   The district notified the police, without first notifying the School Board.

The material in question seems to mostly consist of written erotica and is fully protected by the first amendment.  According to news reports, one of these stories concerned incest between two teenage siblings (update, this story appears to be “Flowers in the Attic” by V.C. Andrews) , and it included a naked picture of a woman who looked like she might be underage.  The Police has not said whether they have identified the woman or confirmed that she is, indeed, underage.  The picture has not otherwise been described, so we don’t know if it is actually pornographic (not all naked pictures of minors are; “Pretty Baby” can still be shown in theaters in California even though it shows a naked, pre-pubescent Brooke Shields.  Did you click on that last links? You are now in danger of having the SLPD arrest you for possession of child pornography.).

The police have also not stated whether the story had actually been authored by Rick Styner, or whether he had downloaded it.  If the latter, the police must show that Steiner actually knew the story contained a pornographic picture of an underage girl.  After all, it’s extremely common for people to download large story collections, and not necessarily read or examine every single one.  It’s also very easy to unwittingly receive material – specially via a dropbox account – that one did not seek or is aware of.  And it’s not always easy to be able to tell the age of a model by her picture alone, much less determine whether the picture is actually pornographic.  Is this picture of Brooke Shields child pornography? You tell me – but if you look, beware that the picture will be downloaded to your computer and you’ll be potentially just as guilty of possessing child pornography as Rick Styner.   Which is likely, not at all.  “Possession of child pornography” is an intent crime, so unwittingly downloading pictures that you don’t know to be pornographic is not a crime.

My personal feeling is that if Styner was, indeed, interested in child pornography, there would have been hundreds of child porn pictures in his computer, not just one of someone who looks like she may be underage and who is not apparently engaged in actual sexual conduct.

The second charge against Rick Styner is even more bizarre.  He is accused of going into the home of a friend, who had given him the key, and taking pictures of her underwear and running clothing.   He is also accused of putting the picture of the woman’s head on pictures of naked bodies.   Apparently, he also took something from the woman’s home, which the police would not identify.

Now, I understand that the Police is trying to suggest that he took pictures of the clothing because of some weird sexual kink – but I find it interesting that the pictures also included the woman’s running gear.  Could it be that Styner – a marathoner – was actually more interested in the brand and style of the clothing?  I don’t know if he actually removed an item of clothing from his friend’s house – the police has shown that it’s not above lying in print and they might have made this up so that they can charge him with burglary -, but  could it not have been for a similarly innocuous reason, such as showing it to his wife to see if she’d like one like it?

As for the photographs – putting someone’s head on someone else’s body, however disturbing, is definitely not a crime, which begs the question of why the police would make such a big deal about it.

I have not personally met Rick Styner – though he is a facebook friend of this blog -, and I have no insight into who he is.  I do know, however, that when I googled him, what I first found about him (other than stories on these charges) were stories about how when SLHS teachers were protesting having to put anti-LGBT-bullying posters on their classrooms, Styner said he would put two.   Given the clear anti-LGBT bias that the SLPD has shown, and which still lingers at the school district, it makes me wonder if there could be a connection there.

In any case, so far it does not appear that Rick Styner has committed any crime, at least no more than what I did when I googled images of “Brook Shields Pretty Baby” and automatically downloaded several of her underage and naked into my computer.  Then again, I would not be surprised if the SLPD was knocking at my home next.


Apr 172012

Tara Flanagan: best of the bunch

Catherine Haley

I love Democracy (it deserves a big “D”, in my opinion) as much as the next person, hey, I’d venture to say even more – but I believe California takes it to its logical but dangerous extreme.  We can see this by the mess the state has gotten into by having its major legislation all be passed by initiatives – which can not be easily or even practically undone once they’ve proven themselves to be harmful.  And we can also see it vis a vis the election of judges.  Like it or not, elections cost money, and money seldom comes without strings attached.

That said, judges are still elected and we still need to vote on them.  This year, the election to watch is the one between Tara Flanagan, Catherine Haley and Andrew Weiner.  Flanagan, Haley and a representative for Weiner came before the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, of which I’m a member, to seek our endorsement.  After a brief presentation, each answered a few questions.

Tara Flanagan

Tara Flanagan seemed to be the favorite going in.  As a lesbian, she had the support of those members of the Committee who want to see greater diversity in the judiciary.  If elected, Flanagan will only be the second lesbian judge in Alameda County.  Vicky Kolakowski, who is both transgendered and a lesbian, was elected to the judiciary in 2010, one of the first transgendered judge in the nation.

Flanagan’s strength does not come from her sexual identity.  Her resume is impressive and her focus on domestic violence commendable.  Flanagan started as an assistant DA in LA, prosecuting domestic violence cases.  She went on to open her own family law practice, also dealing with domestic violence issues among others.  She’s worked as a legal aid attorney, helping people navigate the legal system and serves as a temporary judge overseeing family, traffic and small claims cases.

Catherine Haley‘s background is a little different.  She also has served as a temporary judge and has experienced in legal aid, but she started her career as a flight attendant, went on to work as a law clerk before becoming a lawyer.  She’s worked as a solo practitioner since, dealing with all sorts of cases.

Andrew Weiner

Andrew Weiner

Andrew Weiner, meanwhile, is a mediator/arbitrator which focuses on alternative resolution, apparently in particular in employment cases.  It’s not clear to me why someone with that background would want to be a judge, and as he didn’t go to the endorsement meeting I was unable to ask him.  I will e-mail him and find out.

Of the two women running for judge, I was most impressed by Flanagan.  Indeed, I was very impressed by Flanagan.  She was the only of the two who knew she wasn’t allowed by law to comment on any legal issue that may come before her in the future.  She was thus unable to directly answer my question about whether she believes minors should be tried as adults.   However, she made it clear that she understood all the issues at play.  Haley, who answered after her, seemed much less prepared.  I don’t usually vote for prosecutors or former prosecutors, but I think Flanagan’s experience as an assistant DA actually gives her a deeper understanding of criminal law issues. Plus I like the way she thinks.

I voted to endorse Flanagan and she did, indeed, get the endorsement of the party.  I am fairly certain I will vote for her in June.   Though I recognize that alternative conflict resolution is essential – our justice system is just not equipped to deal with the enormity of legal cases – I also think it most often leads to unfair results for the public.  I’m uncomfortable with the idea of having an arbitrator as a judge.

Apr 112011

In what may be a sign of the times, the Creekside Community Church seems to be toning down its anti-gay rhetoric.  Most conspicuously, it has redesigned the website of its Celebrate Recovery “Christian based” 12-step program to remove mention of “same sex attraction” as one of the addictions that it covers.  Indeed, Creekside is going as far as having its Coordinator of Children’s Ministries, Peggy McGregory, deny the existence of that part of the program (alas, an archived version of their website from 2009 clearly shows it listed among other “addictions”, the page describing the program is not archived, but this is the standard CR same-sex attraction brochure).  There is no other mention of homosexuality or same-sex attraction on its website, though its statement of faith suggests it continues holding the same fundamentalist beliefs it’s used to justify homophobia.

I can only speculate as to what is behind Creekside’s apparent retreat from condemning homosexuality.  Locally, Creekside anti-gay stance came into play last year when a number of Roosevelt Elementary parents refused to let their children attend theatrical events at the Church.  Creekside’s children theater program was started in order to provide an alternative to the theater program at San Leandro High School, which at the time was ran by a gay teacher.  It had expanded to include elementary school kids and for a number of years, Roosevelt Elementary students would be taken to the church to see these plays during the school day.  Last year, gay parents and their allies complained, given the church’s homophobic positions, and Roosevelt has now ended its association with the Church.    Creekside counts as members several pillars of the San Leandro community, including a City Council member, and it may also be the negative attention the Church was drawing was starting to embarrass them personally.

But the issue may be a broader one.  Homosexuality is becoming more and more accepted in the United States (at least among adults).  Polls show a growing acceptance of gay marriage, with a majority of Americans being in favor of it.  The surge of gay teen suicides last year, meanwhile, has brought attention to the deadly consequences of the homophobic rhetoric of churches like Creekside.

Whatever the reason for it be, I welcome the change.