8105 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesa
On April 24, 2014, a Hispanic female exotic dancer walked across the neon-lit room inside Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club dressed in black lingerie. According to an undercover officer from the San Diego Police Department’s vice unit who sat at the main stage, approximately 30 percent of her nipple was showing through her bra.
He spotted another dancer wearing blue panties and a white cutoff shirt. The shirt was cut too short and the bottom half of her breasts jutted out beneath her shirt. The undercover officer requested a private dance from her.
Sitting in the backroom, as his dancer waited for the next song to begin, the officer surveyed the room. He saw dancers sitting on patrons’ “groins with their buttocks.” One patron “used his left hand to grab her buttocks. She made no attempt to move the patron’s hands.”
In a report obtained by the Reader, the detective noted the three violations of San Diego Municipal Code section 33.361. There were a total of seven infractions reported that night.
Undercover inspections are one of vice unit’s main tactics in making sure San Diego’s strip clubs adhere to what some consider to be the most restrictive adult-entertainment ordinance on the West Coast. On a regular basis, officers, dressed in plain clothes, use department money to gain admission into adult-entertainment clubs, pay for drinks at the bar, and pay for private dances in order to enforce the laws.
Cheetahs is a popular spot for undercover operations.
During a one-year period, from April 20, 2013, to June 6, 2014, detectives from the vice unit visited Cheetahs on ten occasions. During those visits, detectives discovered violations including improper nudity, physical contact during lap dances, and dancers violating the six-feet buffer rule while nude.
In March 2014, nearly a dozen undercover officers raided the Kearny Mesa strip club. Officers allegedly ordered the dancers to pose for photos in their lingerie. A woman later claimed she was forced to undress before getting her picture taken. In the following days, several women — as well as the club’s manager, Rich Buonantony — went to the media to complain that the raids violated their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Two lawsuits, one from the dancers and the other from management and owners, were soon filed. The lawsuits and negative publicity, says Cheetahs’ attorney Steve Hoffman, was the breaking point for San Diego’s vice unit.
Two days after the lawsuits were filed, the San Diego Police Department fired back with a violation letter listing three infractions that had occurred months prior, in February 2014.
By July 2014, after several additional violation letters, Cheetahs received a notice of revocation of their nude-entertainment business permit. If Cheetahs loses in court, their permit will be revoked. Cheetahs’ management says they were unfairly targeted and the sting operations were more about retaliation for the dancers going to the media than about enforcement at strip clubs.
While the lawsuits will be played out in court and a judge will decide the fate of Cheetahs’ permit, bigger issues have surfaced: the potential for selective enforcement and the fact that the public pays for investigators’ private dances and admission to all-nude clubs.
San Diego’s vice-unit officers have conducted regular undercover sweeps on strip clubs since the council adopted the adult-entertainment ordinance in 2000. The ordinance was seen as a victory for then–city attorney Casey Gwinn. As reported by the Reader’s Matt Potter, Gwinn had joined efforts with Citizens for Community Values, formerly known as the National Coalition Against Pornography, to push for strict regulations on strip clubs.
The ordinance that the council adopted in 2000 prohibits nude dancers from getting within six feet of patrons, bans lap dances and touching of any kind, and prohibits nudity unless on the main stage of the club. In addition, dancers in San Diego pay $400 a year for police-issued permits, hundreds of dollars more than dancers in other cities.
Since adopting the ordinance, the vice unit has kept a close watch on strip clubs throughout the city, none more so than Cheetahs.
In the 2003 scandal known as “Strippergate,” San Diego city councilmen Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza were charged and later found guilty of accepting bribes from then–Cheetahs owner Jack Gallardi in an attempt to loosen the straps on the city’s adult-entertainment ordinance. Following the scandal, city officials refused to touch the ordinance to ease restrictions.
A former vice-unit detective believes the situation has given detectives a free pass to use undercover operations as an excuse to party and spend taxpayer dollars on booze and private dances.
“San Diego has probably the most restrictive policy towards adult-entertainment clubs on the West Coast,” says the former vice detective. “Enforcement on the industry is left up to the vice unit.
“Vice unit is a club, people line up and join vice. There are detectives that go drinking every night. When they decide to target a place they’ll send in vice cops, narcotics, code compliance to find violations. Once they get a hard-on, they will do whatever they need to do.
“But the reality is, you can go to a nightclub in the Gaslamp and you will see girls’ boobs, girls dancing on girls and guys, a lot of the same activity that you would see in a strip club, but vice unit isn’t there.”
Buonantony believes his club has been unfairly targeted.
“In the past 25 years, Cheetahs has never had a complaint for prostitution or sexual acts or anything, not drugs, nothing. More 911 calls are called in to resolve issues at Chuck E. Cheese in one year than we have had in 25 years. We are easy targets. Who’s going to feel sorry for us? When we went to the [permit] revocation process, there were 15 deputy city attorneys there. Judging by their presence, you’d think it was some major bust. But it was only over minor infractions, like rubbing against an officer’s leg during a lap dance. It’s mind-boggling.”
Adds Buonantony: “This no-touch ordinance is so out of touch. We are policing ourselves. You have guys drinking, and these women are here to make money, but not by doing anything illegal. They are clothed, albeit scantily, and they are smart, many of them putting themselves through college or just saving the money they earn. They don’t want to jeopardize that. How much safer is our city because of this policy? How much money have the taxpayers paid to ensure that dancers are not brushing up against a patron or that too much of her boob is showing?”
Cheetahs attorney Hoffman says that if nothing else, taxpayers should be concerned about the amount in taxpayer dollars that are being spent on private lap dances for officers.
“Here, it would be very easy for plain-clothed cops to go in the the clubs, walk through and write notices of violations to any dancer they see violating a code section. They’ve done that twice at Cheetahs over the last two years. Instead, they argue they can’t enforce the law unless they actually go in in groups of four, spend two hours at the club and get lap dances. Then they send out notices a month later. Considering they do this at all the clubs, taxpayers are paying for cop lap dances every week. They could just send somebody through, 15 minutes, look for violations, and cite them. But they argue they have to participate in the touching in order to enforce it. But the actual expense for undercover raids on strip clubs like Cheetahs isn’t easy to come by.”
In a public records request, the Reader asked the San Diego Police Department for the cost of sting operations similar to those conducted at Cheetahs. The request was denied.
“The amount spent during these covert operations is part of investigations conducted by [San Diego police Department] and part of investigatory filed for licensing purposes. They are exempt from disclosure…. Your request for complaints made to the Police Department regarding Cheetahs is also exempt from disclosure. In addition, disclosure of the information requested is against the public interest because there is a necessity for preserving the confidentiality of the information that outweighs the necessity for disclosure in the interest of justice.”
Buonantony rejects the idea that justice has anything to do with it.
“The policy was enacted to harass, and the vice unit are following through on that harassment, creating a crime when there isn’t one. Trying to enforce laws prohibiting brief touching between dancer and patrons is petty and totally ridiculous when considering the real crime in our city.”
Spokesperson for council president Sherri Lightner, Jennifer Kearns, said her office was not aware of the lawsuits. “In talking with staff, this is the first time that we have heard of the lawsuit. We haven’t seen it yet, so we have no information. We’re going to continue looking into this issue.”