In movies and television shows, undercover cops running prostitution stings bring out the handcuffs as soon as there’s an agreement to exchange money for a sex act. They don’t usually wait to receive the service.
But police in Hawaii have said they need the flexibility to have sex with prostitutes and have fought to save a state law that has allowed them to do so.
Civil rights groups and victims’ advocates called that position ridiculous.
“We are near certain that no other state in the nation allows for this type of ‘interpersonal’ and highly problematic ‘investigative tool’ to facilitate prostitution arrests,” the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery wrote to lawmakers this week ahead of a Senate committee hearing regarding the law Friday.
“Other states such as Illinois, California, New York, Washington, D.C., Texas, and Georgia — states with high rates of sex trafficking and prostitution — do not allow sexual penetration to be used by law enforcement during prostitution investigations yet have no problem completing successful investigations and arrests,” the group wrote. They expressed worries about the possibility of officers abusing their power, assaulting prostitutes and having to navigate conflict-of-interest issues.
The Honolulu Police Department argued that if the law enforcement exemption is deleted, prostitutes would engage in "cop checking." In other words, they would demand that sex occur before money changes hands so they could filter out officers.
The furor over the exemption came up last month as lawmakers begin debating how to strengthen the state’s anti-prostitution statutes. Lawmakers in the state House voted to preserve the exemption, but the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee on Friday deferred a vote on HB 1926 until March 28.
After a wave of outrage this week, committee Chairman Clayton Hee vowed to remove the exemption because, he said, letting police have sex with prostitutes is "nonsensical," the Associated Press reported.
"He sounded pretty surprised and disgusted by the existing law," Kathryn Xian of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery told the Los Angeles Times late Friday. “We are confident he will do what he said, which was very enlightening and fortifying."
Under the proposed amendment that the committee is expected to consider next week, officers could touch adult prostitutes, but they wouldn't be allowed to "sexually penetrate." When dealing with minors, officers would be banned from even touching them. Not knowing that the prostitute was a minor couldn't be used as a defense by police, Xian said.
It's possible that Hee could decide to go further before next week and seek to ban sexual contact in all cases, said Xian, who helped draft the original measure.
The legislation has also raised concerns among public defenders in Hawaii. They wrote in a letter to lawmakers that solicitation of a minor for prostitution and second-degree promotion of prostitution shouldn’t be upgraded to violent offenses that carry tougher penalties. They also said people who solicit underage prostitutes shouldn’t have to register as sex offenders.
The proposed legislation has also sought to allow prostitutes to receive compensation from a fund for crime victims and to expand some definitions of prostitution to include sadomasochistic abuse.