Ohio police spent $768 on strip club tickets, tips, and booze during a July sting that ended in the arrest of Stormy Daniels, the adult star who is suing the president and whose new memoir just reached the New York Times bestseller list. The undercover excursion could wind up costing cops a whole lot more than that.
The charges filed against Daniels and two other women arrested that night, Miranda Panda and Brittany Walters, were quickly dismissed. Now Panda and Walters have sued several Columbus police officers in federal court, arguing that the arrests were politically motivated.
As a result of this alleged conspiracy, Panda and Walters say, they suffered reputational harm and exposure to harassment. Someone painted the word whore across the door of Panda's home, for example, and reporters outed Walters as a stripper to her immediate family. The women are seeking at least $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, plus attorneys' fees.
The arrests took place on July 11 after undercover vice officers, including detectives Mary Praither, Shana Keckley, and Steven Rosser and Lieutenant Whitney Lancaster, spent several hours at Sirens Gentleman Club, where Daniels was making a guest appearance as part of a nationwide tour. That night, Panda was working her second-ever shift as a Sirens cocktail waitress and Walters was working as a dancer.
All three women were arrested for alleged violations of a contentious Columbus law regulating conduct at "sexually oriented businesses." Under the law, anyone who regularly appears nude or semi-nude at such establishments may not touch patrons or other workers.
The morning after the arrests, Columbus police tweeted a statement saying they were made "as part of a long-term investigation into allegations of human trafficking, prostitution, along with other vice related violations."
But lawyers for Panda and Walters say the cops went to Sirens that night not as part of some ongoing mission but with a specific and discrete plan to bust Daniels. When asked afterward about the alleged human trafficking and prostitution investigation, police produced one citizen complaint, made more than a month before the arrests, about possible prostitution taking place three and a half miles from Sirens Gentleman's Club, according to the lawsuit.
The night before the arrests, Keckley sent colleagues information about Daniels, her relationship with Trump, and her upcoming performance at Sirens. On the night of the performance, the lawsuit says, "Defendant Officers were drinking alcoholic beverages while on the job, spending a total of one-hundred and twenty-nine dollars ($129) of taxpayer money on such beverages, and six-hundred and thirty-nine dollars ($639) of taxpayer money on tips and cover charges." Here is how Panda's lawyers describe her interaction with the officers:
Ms. Panda, as part of her job as a cocktail waitress, approached Defendant Officers' table when she noticed they had almost empty drinks to ask if they wanted more drinks. Defendant Officers responded they were not interested in ordering more drinks and asked when Ms. Clifford [Daniels' legal name] would be performing.
Defendant Officers then lewdly commented on Ms. Panda's breasts, comparing the respective sizes between Ms. Panda's and one of the female officer's breasts. Ms. Panda was wearing a large bra, which covered all of her nipples and most of her breasts; underwear; leggings; and a high-waisted skirt, which covered her entire mid-section and for much of the night was tucked into the underside of her bra.
At the same time, [Ms. Hall], another cocktail waitress, was servicing a table behind the one Defendant Officers occupied, when she bent over to speak to her customers. She was similarly dressed. At that point, Defendant Officers commented on Ms. Hall's butt, comparing her body to Ms. Panda's by stating, "You [Ms. Panda] have the tits, and she [Ms. Hall] has the ass."
Because of this comment, Ms. Panda jokingly grabbed Ms. Hall's rear end.
Later that evening, the officers went up to the stage where Walters was performing in "a body suit (akin to a woman's one-piece bathing suit) over a pair of regular underwear (not a G-string), and pasties to fully cover her nipples and areola, the same outfit she always wears when performing," according to the lawsuit, which continues:
While Ms. Walters was dancing, several of the Defendant Officers sat in the seats by the stage and began waving money in Ms. Walters' face and reaching out to initiate contact with Ms. Walters. Defendant [Mary] Praither would subsequently allege that during this interaction Ms. Walters bent down from the stage and put her face between Defendant Praither's breasts in an area below Defendant Praither's areole. [sic]
Due to the height of the stage, it would have been physically impossible for Ms. Walters to bend down far enough to put her face between Defendant Praither's breasts in an area below Defendant's areole.
As VIP ticket holders, the officers were also given an opportunity to meet Daniels before her performance. Officer Praither alleged that during this time, Daniels "put both hands on officers [sic] buttocks, both hands on officers [sic] breast, then put her breast in officers [sic] face."
Daniels, Panda, and Walters were arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the Franklin County Correctional Center, where "they were placed in a holding cell, booked, fingerprinted, and photographed." About six hours later, police returned Panda and Walters to Sirens.
The next afternoon, Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs put out a statement saying "vice personnel working last night believed they had probable cause that the state law regulating sexually-oriented businesses was violated; however, one element of the law was missed in error." Six days later, the charges were officially dismissed at the request of the prosecutor, who cited lack of probable cause.
Lawyers for Panda and Walters say this was no accident. "The Columbus Police Department Vice Unit enforces a very limited set of laws," they write, and "are intimately aware of all of the elements for the limited set of laws they are charged with enforcing."
The clearest element is that the arrestee was appearing nude or semi-nude, defined as "a state of dress in which opaque clothing covers not more than the genitals, pubic region and nipple of the female breast as well as portions of the body covered by supporting straps or devices." That description did not apply to Panda or Walters. In addition, an arrestee must appear nude or semi-nude at the estbalishment in question on a regular basis. But Daniels was a special guest performer at Sirens, not a regular dancer there, while Panda had just started the night before.
Columbus vice detectives did not have good cause to arrest any of them, the lawsuit argues. Rather, they "initiated a prosecution in order to further their civil conspiracy and retaliate against the political expression and activities" of Daniels, who has been engaged in a legal battle with Trump over disclosure of her alleged 2006 affair with him.
The lawsuit notes that three of the participating vice officers—detectives Praither, Keckley, and Rosser—are registered Republicans. Rosser maintained a Facebook page, under the alias Stevo Shaboykins, that frequently featured pro-Trump messages. Panda and Walters suggest that the officers "determined between themselves in advance" that Daniels would be arrested and charged with a violation of the no-touching law, and that they would arrest two other Sirens staffers in order to hide the political motivation for arresting Daniels.
As further cover, the lawsuit says, Columbus cops "falsely insinuated to the media and the public that Ms. Panda and Ms. Walters had been engaged in prostitution, human trafficking, or vice related violations." Panda and Walters say these arrests, "done with malicious purpose" and "in bad faith," violated Ohio law as well as the Fourth and 14th amendments.