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Bid to Fight Prostitution Hits a Snag : Law enforcement: Judges question blanket policy of probation rules that would prohibit convicted prostitutes from certain areas and behaviors.

December 26, 1991|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

West Hollywood officials and law enforcement authorities say their efforts to combat prostitution on the city's east side are being thwarted by Beverly Hills Municipal Court judges who are reluctant to impose strict probation conditions recommended by prosecutors.

The district attorney's office, working with the city and the Sheriff's Department, has recommended nine conditions to severely restrict the activities of convicted prostitutes within a so-called prostitution abatement zone on Santa Monica Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea avenues.

Probationers would be prohibited from sitting on any bus bench without boarding the first bus that arrives. They would not be allowed to "stop and talk" to occupants in parked cars. Nor would they be permitted to wave to passing motorists or use similar gestures that could be interpreted as an act of solicitation.

Other conditions would prohibit probationers from loitering on streets, alleyways, sidewalks and parking lots, and would require them to carry valid California identification at all times--to be presented to sheriff's deputies upon request.

Deputies could stop and photograph probationers if it appears they have altered their appearance. The pictures would be used in a file on repeat offenders.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Allan S. Tyson asked the court to impose the conditions this month after the Sheriff's Department conducted sweeps along Santa Monica Boulevard that yielded more than 50 arrests.

But the four judges and one commissioner at the court have resisted imposing the conditions as a package, saying they don't think a blanket policy would pass a constitutional test. So far, three of the five members of the court have been willing to apply limited versions of the two conditions relating to loitering and identification. Only one judge has been willing to use more than three of them.

"You'd think the court would want to be part of a community effort to combat crime," said a frustrated Nancy Greenstein, the city's public safety coordinator. "We're trying to work within the system. But it's clear from neighbors that this is a desperate situation."

Prosecutors argue that the conditions would make it easier for authorities to keep repeat offenders off the streets. Sheriff's deputies could arrest probationers--even if they have not committed an illegal act--for violating any of the conditions. If found guilty, they would face a maximum six-month jail sentence.

Sheriff's officials also say the measures are necessary because current penalties are failing to deter prostitutes from plying their trade. Although first-time offenders face a maximum six-month stay in county jail, they are sentenced to five days on the average, of which they usually serve three days, according to judges at the Beverly Hills court. County inmates typically serve about half their sentences, the judges note, because of state and federal orders that set limits on the jail population.

Even so, prosecutors say the increased risk of arrest combined with the specter of a minimum 45-day sentence for a second offense will stop hustlers from returning to their haunts.

"We need to make it unpleasant and unprofitable for people to engage in this type of activity in West Hollywood," Tyson said.

East-end residents welcome the measures as a hard-nosed solution to a problem that is growing worse literally at their doorsteps. They have long insisted--and city and sheriff's officials have concurred--that prostitution makes the area unsafe partly because it invites a host of ancillary crimes, including drug dealing, robberies and violent assaults.

Local business groups say the perception of increased crime has scared customers and prevented West Hollywood's shoddy east side from prospering like the western half of the city.

But the court's outgoing presiding judge, Charles G. Rubin, said the probation plan would effectively strip the judges of discretion to weigh facts and circumstances of individual cases, including a defendant's prior criminal record and conduct during the alleged crime.

"The law says that we cannot impose illegal conditions of probation just to accommodate a socially beneficial purpose," Rubin said. "We are interested and sensitive to the community's concerns, but we will only address them in a legal manner."

The judge argues that the conditions fail to take into consideration legitimate reasons why probationers might temporarily return to Santa Monica Boulevard--whether for work, visits to the doctor or any number of other possibilities.

Like Rubin, Judge Elden S. Fox also sees problems with restricting behavior that is not illegal.

"Someone could be sitting on a bus bench because they are sick or tired," Fox said. "I do not see how a deputy would be able to stop or arrest an individual unless that person was loitering or engaging in some other form of criminal activity. The challenge for us is to use conditions that will pass constitutional muster."

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