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Stung 

Men don’t have to agree to sex in order to get busted in a prostitution sting. They just have to seem interested.

Wednesday, Jun 16 2010
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Page 3 of 5

As prostitution has shifted to the Internet, it has become more difficult for police officers to make arrests in street-level stings. Since 2005, the number of johns arrested has dropped steadily, according to a 2009 audit by the city's budget analyst. For many years, the fees paid by the johns covered the costs of the entire FOPP program, as well as programs for prostitutes who wanted to leave the business. But with a declining number of arrests, there are no longer enough johns to subsidize the program. In 2008, FOPP cost a total of $178,147, including $43,089 for the cost of the police decoy operations themselves, and $94,010 for the District Attorney's costs in administering the program. In the past four years, the revenue shortfall has totaled $270,374, according to the budget report, and the District Attorney's office has kept FOPP afloat with money from other projects.

The Internet has also caused major problems for prostitution enforcement.

Even as the police are heading out on their twice-weekly operations, members of MyRedBook.com may be live-updating police sightings on a discussion board labeled "Street Action."

"Not a night for the SF Mission," one May post was titled. "Looks like the LE [law enforcement] are out en force — I was on my motorcycle and witnessed them pulling over people they suspect of trolling the streets," its author warned. "Be safe out there."

On MyRedBook, which bills itself as an online resource for "Escort, Massage Parlor, and Strip Club Reviews," these self-titled "hobbyists" or "mongers" trade reviews of their favorite streetwalkers and post emphatic warnings about how to tell a decoy cop from a real prostitute. One method is the "cop check," which involves getting a free grope to prove that a woman is not a police officer.

Because of this scrutiny, officers are wary of sharing details about their enforcement strategies. The worry is that any information published in the media will be immediately posted on MyRedBook and scrutinized for more hints to avoid arrest. Ravella asked that the police vehicles and the precise locations of their stings not be described in detail, and that photographs not betray the identities of officers or johns.

But on a recent evening, Internet or no Internet, Dickson didn't have to wait on the corner for long. After she arrested the Salvadoran men, a grandfatherly man in a gray Mercedes pulls up. He's wearing a wedding ring, and he gets cited for straight solicitation.

Dickson has barely settled herself on the corner for a third time when a U-Haul truck rolls past and then pulls over. The driver claims later that he had just stopped to adjust one of his mirrors. Dickson walks up to his passenger-side window to ask whether he wants a date. The guy doesn't agree to pay her for sex — he was in the middle of helping some friends move. But he explained later that he did ask for her phone number after she let him know she was a prostitute.

Just that seemed to be enough to get him arrested for loitering.


San Francisco has a strong and vocal minority of people who think prostitution should not be a crime. Advocates of decriminalizing sex work argue that police enforcement makes prostitution dangerous, both for those who sell sex and those who buy it.

But arresting men for solicitation is relatively straightforward. Agreeing to a sex act for money is a misdemeanor, and men who do so can be arrested and cited. If first-time offenders don't want to go to FOPP's re-education program, they will be sent through the criminal justice system. It's not easy to get a conviction on any prostitution case in San Francisco — Greg Barge, managing attorney of the misdemeanor trial unit in the District Attorney's office, says the jury selection process can be a nightmare — but when the recording of the arrest is clear and convincing, the DA can sometimes secure a conviction.

Using Penal Code 653.22(a), loitering for the purposes of prostitution, is more ambiguous. According to Elizabeth Joh, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law who specializes in criminal law and procedure, this statute has been upheld by a 1998 Court of Appeal judgment. But, she writes in an e-mail, "I wouldn't be surprised if this is used too often. ... It's a very flexible tool that appears to confer a great deal of discretion upon the police."

Criminal law experts note that, historically, loitering statutes have often been abused, particularly by police forces in the segregated South. Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford Law School, says the statute's use for prostitution arrests reminds him of an infamous case from 1950s Alabama in which a black man was arrested for an "attempted attempt" to rape a white woman.

Picking up men in prostitution stings means arresting people just for possibly planning to commit a crime, not for actually committing one, he says. Under the loitering statute, he says, the link between the arrest and the actual committing of a crime grows even more tenuous.

Peter Arenella, a UCLA School of Law criminal expert who was a legal analyst during the O.J. Simpson trial, says he thinks San Francisco police are abusing the statute. The point of the law, he says, is to target criminal intent. So, if a man trolling for prostitutes asks a decoy for her phone number and then calls her within minutes of their interaction, that's enough to justify an arrest. But if he asks for her number to use at "some unspecified future time," that's not good enough, "constitutionally speaking," Arenella says. "If all they have is an intent to possibly solicit sex sometime in the future, that's not enough for a conviction under the statute. They're wrong."

About The Author

Lois Beckett

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