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Council passes “unconstitutional” law

Sometimes, I just don’t know what to make of our City Council. Yesterday, they passed an anti-prostitution law which they themselves acknowledge is unconstitutional and a surefire bet to be challenged in court.

Under the ordinance, effective within five days, any officer may arrest a “known prostitute” — someone convicted of prostitution within the last year — for loitering in a public place with the intent to commit prostitution, demonstrated by enticing, soliciting or procuring someone.

“This ordinance makes it a crime for looking like you want to proposition someone for sex,” said Annette Lamoreaux, East Texas regional director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“In this country, we only arrest people for committing a crime, not for looking like they are about to commit a crime.”

Lamoreaux said her office will decide whether to file a lawsuit immediately or wait for someone to be arrested and seek a plaintiff, adding that council was irresponsible for passing the law based on political expediency.

Look, I get that the Council is responding to residents – in a neighborhood not far from my own, I might add – who have legitimate complaints. But what good will this law do if it’s sure to be struck down by the courts? Now you’re not only right back where you started, you’re out court costs at a time when you’re already cash strapped. Who’s being served here? There’s a million lawyers in this town – couldn’t we come up with something, you know, more effective than this?

It is not just the act of prostitution that affects neighborhoods, said Paula Parshall, a member of Northline’s Super Neighborhood, but also its side effects.

“Prostitution brings other crimes into our communities. It causes a deterioration of our neighborhoods. It knows no boundaries,” she said.

Well, then, why not try cracking down on those who commit the other crimes as well? It’s called broken windows policing, and it’s got a lot of support behind it (and some opposition as well). Unfortunately, it’s also associated with the infamous Captain Mark Aguirre, so I’m not holding my breath. The point is that attacking the other crimes will pretty much by definition make any neighborhood less hospitable to hookers as well. Doesn’t that sound like a win-win?

I admit, it’s possible this has been tried and has been insufficient. The article gives no indication. A search of the Chronicle archives turns up some interesting stuff, though. On February 20, there was an article about the “storefront” police department in the Independence Heights, and it mentioned one of the anti-prostitution strategies that the officers there use:

Instead of simply arresting a single drug dealer, the [Differential Response Team]-trained officers now look at the overlapping crimes to connect the transporters, buyers and owners of the house or apartment used for illicit business, he said.

Rather than arrest a prostitute, [Sgt. Frank] Escobedo and his officers will spend more time tracking down the owner of the rent-by-the-hour motel the prostitute operates from. If the owners are not cooperative in helping reduce the illegal trade, officers will look into electrical or plumbing violations with which to eventually shutdown the operation, he said.

Guess that wasn’t working so well, because on March 7 the residents were complaining to Council member Gabriel Vasquez and District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal:

“I’m at my wit’s end; they need to do something to stop this,” said Amanda Augustine. “Maybe the police can do more undercover sting operations or investigations.”

Augustine said prostitutes and johns will often do their business in or near an abandoned 18-wheeler trailer in a field behind her house. She said it was distasteful to see the same women walking up to the same cars at all hours along Airline between Crosstimbers and the North Loop.

So it’s hard to say. One last thing about this law is that it was modelled after an ordinance passed in Dallas in 1976. There must be some differences if Houston’s statute is clearly unconstitutional, for the Dallas law is apparently still on the books, as this May 2 article indicates:

Dallas’ law has been on the books since 1976, and [HPD Captain David] Cutler said it has been successful in reducing prostitution.

Houston’s legal department drafted a similar ordinance at the city council’s request but has warned members that, if passed, it could be overturned because of possible civil rights violations.

Annette Lamoreaux, the East Texas Regional Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, made it clear during Thursday’s public safety committee meeting that her organization would fight it.

“Any criminal defense lawyer worth their salt is going to run a truck through this,” she said. “Don’t be lulled into a sense of security that because the Dallas law is on the books, that this will go unchallenged.”

So I guess we’ll have to see. If the city ultimately prevails in court, then this will have been worth it. I trust you’ll pardon me if I don’t have a lot of faith.

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3 Comments

  1. William Hughes says:

    Rudy Giuliani gave a lot of credit for the drop in crime during his administration to the “broken windows policing” policy implemented by the Police Department. In this case, however, the “squeegee men” (a unique experience for those of you who have never lived in a large city where a “homeless person” (what used to be called a “bum”) uses a squeegee or dirty rag to wipe your windows when you are at a stop sign whether you want it or not and then expects to be paid for the “service”) were the symbolic target.

    As for arresting known prostitutes, this seems to happen all of the time, at least if you watch “Cops”. Every other show seems to feature a “known” prostitute and/or drug addict being arrested.

  2. mike jack says:

    It would be pleasent if the learned counsel and local ACLU office would offer to help the city instead of immediately looking for a plaintiff.

  3. linda jones says:

    Prostitution is common in Independence Heights[Houston] and Montrose[Houston].