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Police Seize Clothes to Collar Prostitution

Crime: Officials say taking garments can be an effective tool. Action may be unconstitutional, critics charge.

February 20, 1996|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — The pair of young prostitutes smiled for their mug shots as officers pulled evidence from the women's black jackets--half a dozen condoms, a wad of cash and two canisters of Mace, in case of danger.

By the time the 18-year-old from Montana and her 23-year-old friend were released from the city jail on a recent night, police had taken one other key item into evidence: their clothes. The women, who arrived in matching stretch pants and exercise bras, walked into the night wearing only the Police Department's signature white paper jumpsuits.

The practice of seizing the clothes of suspected prostitutes is just one in an arsenal of enforcement tools that frustrated officers hope will put a halt to the revolving door of misdemeanor prostitution arrests.

Critics denounce the paper clothing as sexist and possibly unconstitutional, noting that no other criminal suspects are treated this way.

"You can bet if they started stripping the male customers, it wouldn't last very long," said Mary Broderick, executive director of the Los Angeles-based California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. "All they have to do is put Hugh Grant out in the street in a little paper suit."

But vice detectives say the jumpsuit gimmick--practiced quietly in Costa Mesa for the last five years--is a legal and effective way to make the arrest process as unpleasant as possible. The goal: to slow the steady stream of streetwalkers, even if only for one night.

"The more we can cost a hooker--as far as the time out of service--and do it within the legal framework, that's what we're trying to do," Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Loren Wyrick said. "We're trying to make them as uncomfortable as possible."

In a time of shrinking budgets, when an arrest often means little more than a few hours of inconvenience, police say they must turn to more extreme methods.

Since last month, Costa Mesa officers have embraced a hotly debated new state law that makes loitering with the intent to commit prostitution illegal. They regularly conduct stings aimed at customers, or "johns." And they recently began slapping the women with conspiracy charges and arresting them for prowling and trespassing when they ply their trade on private property.

The heart of the prostitution corridor that has spurred the crackdown is a stretch of Harbor Boulevard dotted with office parks and frequented by noon-hour business traffic.

Girls as young as 13 and seasoned streetwalkers with as many as 30 prior arrests have been hauled through the book-and-release process in recent months. One woman--seven months pregnant--was arrested twice in a two-hour period last month and again the following day after she shed her jumpsuit for a change of clothes stashed nearby.

Another, eager to get back to work, cut her white paper suit into hot pants, wrapped a belt around it and was back on the street within minutes of her release, Wyrick said.

The steady prostitution traffic in recent years has enraged business owners in the area's commercial complexes, many of which are owned by real estate scion Anton Segerstrom. Parking lots, some of them now chained off to prevent easy public access, have increasingly been the site of quickie "car dates," as motels in the area more closely scrutinize their clientele.

"It's offensive to employees and to your customers who are coming into your buildings," said one purchasing manager who asked not to be identified. "I've seen [the women] get dropped off in our parking lot. You see it all the time at lunchtime."

On a stretch of Harbor Boulevard between Baker Street and MacArthur Boulevard, police arrested 93 suspected prostitutes in a six-month period ending in December, Costa Mesa Sgt. Gary McErlain said. Of those, 28 were arrested for prowling--standing on private property with the alleged intent to commit a crime.

Figures for this year were not available, but McErlain estimated that officers arrested about 25 women in January under the new loitering law.

The enforcement also targets demand. On Thursday night, undercover female vice officers hit the street as decoys, pulling in a steady flow of customers.

The sting netted 31 "johns" in about five hours, including a car salesman who wanted to lick the toes of an undercover vice officer, a state worker from Coto de Caza whose wife recently gave birth, and a high school teacher who had stepped out to buy his pregnant wife a candy bar and a Slurpee when he drove past the undercover streetwalkers and opted for a quick detour. Instead, the dad-to-be was photographed, fingerprinted and jammed into a borrowed bus with several dozen other sour-faced men.

All but two of the men were cited and released. One was cited under the new loitering law, which has been vehemently opposed by civil libertarians who contend it treats innocent behavior as criminal.

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