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Prostitution Law Useless, Critics Say

Crime: Few arrests have been made for fear of lawsuits. Prosecutor says the situation will improve with training.

July 30, 1996|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly seven months after a controversial state law aimed at curbing prostitution took effect, officials in Los Angeles and other cities with notorious concentrations of streetwalkers acknowledge that they have made only limited use of the new measure because some fear inviting a civil rights lawsuit.

Los Angeles Police Department vice officers complain that a lengthy set of enforcement guidelines, drawn up by what they call an overly cautious city attorney's office, has rendered the new law virtually useless in some parts of the city.

"There are so many restrictions that have been placed on this law that it's almost laughable," said one LAPD vice officer. "We're handcuffed in our use of it."

The city has already seen a five-year decline in prostitution arrests, in part because of lower staffing in the LAPD's vice unit.

The law was sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) in response to local law enforcement authorities' requests.

"Here is an example of giving police officers a tool they asked for, but that some aren't using," Katz said. "And if it's because of some bureaucratic fumbling between the city attorney and the Police Department, then that needs to be resolved."

The city attorney's office said it crafted the guidelines to make sure the cases don't get thrown out of court but has nonetheless asked the LAPD to put its concerns in writing.

When enacted last fall, the measure was touted as a powerful new tool to combat blatant street crime, including prostitution and drug dealing. By making it a crime to "loiter with the intent to commit prostitution or a drug offense," the measure was designed to empower police to make arrests based on activities they consider precursors to crime such as beckoning to cars, talking to passersby or standing in an area known for prostitution.

Early on, however, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the measure for criminalizing otherwise legal behavior.

Last week, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Southern California said that while her office remains very concerned with the loitering law, they have not been monitoring it. "We have not had an occasion to challenge it yet," said Associate Director Liz Schroeder.

Nonetheless, fear of a legal challenge from either the ACLU or a defense attorney prompted the Los Angeles city attorney's office to craft a special set of guidelines for police officers to follow when enforcing the measure to ensure that such cases could hold up in court.

Under the guidelines for prostitution-related arrests, for example, vice officers must take a full-length photograph of a suspect, document detailed evidence of the person's guilt, and submit all known evidence of his or her involvement in prostitution during the previous six months.

Critics charge that the guidelines, which cover 10 additional points, are so exhaustive and time-consuming that most officers lack the time and backup needed to meet all the requirements.

One exception is the LAPD's Hollywood Division, which unlike the city's 17 other police divisions has a large vice unit and a sophisticated, computerized prostitution tracking system. In fact, nearly half of the 65 prostitution-related arrests made under the law during the first five months of the year were in Hollywood.

Similarly, law enforcement officials say the law has worked well in the Rampart Division when applied to drug dealing. But like Hollywood, police in Rampart have set up a special enforcement detail with extra officers.

Adding to the problems in other police divisions, vice officers in some of the city's seediest neighborhoods are privately complaining that city prosecutors at the central courthouse are much stricter in their interpretation of the guidelines than in Hollywood, which is the jurisdiction of Deputy City Atty. Bill Sterling, who helped write the law and the guidelines.

As a result, some officers say, fewer cases are filed outside Hollywood, a point of contention with city prosecutors.

"I know there is some level of resentment out there," said Alan Dahle, a deputy city attorney who supervises the city attorney's central office. But the standards for filing charges under the Katz law are the same for the central area and Hollywood, he said.

Dahle said police need to follow the guidelines to ensure they make justifiable arrests and so that prosecutors will have enough evidence to prove their cases. Charges have been brought in nine cases in the central Municipal Court.

If some vice officers are feeling frustrated, Dahle said, it may be because they simply did not understand what the law provides.

"I believe police officers thought they would be able to see someone with a history of prostitution and arrest them, but you can't just go down the block sweeping up prostitutes," Dahle said.

Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn recently asked police for a report detailing their concerns about the enforcement policy and offering suggestions.

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