St. Paul's crackdown on lewd behavior in its parks has in the past two years netted, among others, a parochial school president and a Chanhassen pastor -- both of whom resigned as a result.

Their indecent-conduct guilty pleas were victories for a police undercover team that one officer once testified could produce 12 arrests in three hours' time.

A Ramsey County District Court ruling, however, has questioned the sting tactics.

Last month, Judge J. Thomas Mott acquitted Duane B. Hodges, 63, of St. Anthony, of indecent exposure stemming from a July 2010 sting incident in Crosby Farm Park. It was there that an officer invited himself into Hodges' car, told him he was up for "anything" and then arrested Hodges after he allegedly exposed himself.

Mott said that the officer's actions were "if not an open invitation to the exposure [then] certainly a consent to it" and that the resulting interaction between the two occurred well out of the public's view.

No crime, the judge said.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Dean, who represented Hodges, said it was outrageous that the city would prosecute such cases. Imagine, he said, a woman walking with a man along a park path. Say she touches his buttocks with what she believes to be his consent. Should she be charged "with what is essentially a sex crime?" he said.

"There would be protests," Dean said.

But while he and his client hope that drawing attention to Mott's ruling will deter police and prosecutors from prosecuting "innocent people," City Attorney Sara Grewing said last week that her office was not backing down from the fight against quality-of-life offenses.

The decision, she said, "doesn't give us pause. We are going to continue to review the cases that the Police Department refers to us [to determine] if we can prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. We wouldn't have taken this case to trial if we hadn't believed we were correct about our reading of the law and our knowledge of the facts."

As for the police, spokesman Howie Padilla said: "We are going to look at the case and see what, if anything, we can learn from it."

Dean, as it turns out, has prevailed before against the city in an area where repeat behavior seems to be the norm.

Eye to eye

Crosby Farm Park is a vast stretch of land with bluffs, trees and paved trails offering a rural-like escape for runners, cyclists and dog walkers. The road off Shepard Road drops in elevation, eventually revealing open fields and a pavilion. There are parking lots, too. There, much of the undercover work begins.

Police say they have conducted the stings in response to citizen complaints about lewd conduct there. On July 15, 2010, officers snared Hodges and Joseph M. Peschges, then the president of Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, during what was the fifth sting operation that year at Crosby Farm Park and Meeker Island.

Most suspects' actions follow a pattern, said an officer testifying last year in an unrelated indecent-exposure case. Vehicles flow through Crosby, passing officers as they sit in parked vehicles. Often, eye contact is made. Then, a passerby stops, windows are rolled down and the officer and suspect chat before, typically, taking a walk together.

Peschges, like Hodges, didn't have to go that far before action commenced. The undercover officer told Peschges, who had been cycling, that he was game for anything, and suggested they engage in the activity in the officer's sport-utility vehicle, a police report said.

"Are you sure? Someone might see," Peschges was quoted as saying, prompting the officer to assure him that no one was around and that they would be fine, the report said.

Peschges reached into the SUV, grabbed the officer's groin and was arrested. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of indecent conduct. Police say Peschges also told the officer he had had a sexual encounter with another person he met at Crosby earlier in the year.

The Rev. Michael J. Krenik, of St. Hubert Catholic Community in Chanhassen, was cited last November for lewd conduct after exposing himself to an undercover officer in a park area near Eustis Street and N. Mississippi River Boulevard. The officer kneeled in front of him as if to perform oral sex, the report in that case said. The exposure occurred in "plain view of the walking trail," wrote the officer, who noted two people were walking nearby when he and Krenik were talking.

Krenik pleaded guilty in January to indecent exposure.

Still aggressive

Dean said he could understand police arresting people they see having sex in the park. "But they have cast the net so wide that it's snaring innocent people," he said.

Hodges, his client, was arrested previously for alleged indecent conduct in Crosby Farm Park. But those charges were dropped by both the St. Paul and Ramsey County attorney's offices, Dean said. So, was Hodges seeking a sexual encounter when he returned to Crosby in July 2010?

"No," Dean said. "He just likes the park."

Police have conducted stings in other public places. In 2007, Burnsville police arrested 16 men in a crackdown on lewd behavior in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Thirteen were charged and convicted, court records show. One man, now 83, has since notched two more indecent-exposure convictions.

Grewing acknowledged that Mott's ruling could lead to other attorneys adopting Dean's defense strategy. That is, that no crime is committed when an officer consents to the action and no one else is nearby to be offended by it. But other judges, she said, are not bound to follow the decision.

"We'll continue to take these cases seriously," Grewing said.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041