‘We have many areas of our city that are plagued with prostitution … I think this is one way to strengthen our enforcement capabilities,’ D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey says about a plan to create ‘Prostitution Free Zones.’
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By JOSHUA LYNSEN
Friday, March 31, 2006
Efforts to curb prostitution in the District could lead to increased profiling and arrests of transgender residents, some activists fear.
Part of the proposed Omnibus Public Safety Act of 2005 allows police to establish "Prostitution Free Zones" in public areas. People must have an "apparent lawful reason" to be within the area, or face arrest.
The Alliance for a Safe & Diverse D.C., along with 22 other local and national organizations, have co-signed a letter opposing the act, claiming it "will increase harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens" of the District.
The City Council’s Judiciary Committee is currently reviewing the Omnibus Public Safety Act. Further action on the measure is pending, with no review date set.
Darby Hickey, a program coordinator at the Different Avenues support center in Washington, said the act could affect many innocent minorities. But she said the proposed Prostitution Free Zones could particularly harm innocent transgender people.
"There’s widespread profiling of transgender women as sex workers," she said. "These measures … have a huge potential for violating people’s rights."
Hickey, who is transgender, said her organization also signed the protest letter because the zones counter public and private efforts to improve local health.
"What we see as the outcome is people getting pushed more into the shadows, both literally and figuratively," she said.
The Omnibus Public Safety Act was introduced April 6, 2005, and touted by proponents as a "comprehensive anti-crime bill."
Written with 22 sections, the act seeks to reduce gun violence, enhance penalties for criminal acts against juveniles or the elderly, and criminalize gang recruitment, among other actions.
Title 21 creates so-called Prostitution Free Zones. These areas, which are designated by Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey, can include any public space and the surrounding areas.
Zones disappear five days after creation, but Ramsey can renew the designation.
According to the proposed law, an officer who "reasonably believes," considering the "totality of the circumstances," that someone within a marked zone is there "for the purpose of engaging in prostitution," can arrest the subject, who would face misdemeanor charges.
Also subject to arrest in the zones are identified gang members, and anyone lacking an "apparent lawful reason" for being inside the designated boundaries. Anyone convicted would face up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $300.
‘Plagued with prostitution’
Ramsey said the Prostitution Free Zones are intended as another tool officers can use to combat prostitution.
"We have many areas of our city that are plagued with prostitution, and we certainly want to do all we can to bring relief to those particular neighborhoods," Ramsey told the Blade this week. "I think this is one way to strengthen our enforcement capabilities."
Robert Spagnoletti, D.C.’s attorney general, said Prostitution Free Zones are modeled on existing drug-free zone laws.
In public testimony offered last year, Spagnoletti, who is gay, said the law would stand up in court because it passes constitutional muster.
He said officers would give "fair warning" before any arrests are made; use "objective criteria" to determine whether a person is suspect; and work to avoid any "chilling effect" upon a person’s freedom.
Nonetheless, the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the proposed Prostitution Free Zones. Art Spitzer, legal director of the D.C. chapter, said the plan seems unlawful.
Spitzer said the Prostitution Free Zones are similar in concept to D.C. laws that spurred the arrest of three women for prostitution in the 1980s.
The women appealed their convictions, and were heard by the D.C. Court of Appeals, the District’s highest court, in 1987 as Ford vs. U.S. Spitzer said the convictions were overturned for insufficient evidence.
He said that court also gave "a strong hint that it would be unconstitutional to convict someone for loitering for the purpose of prostitution without some actual proof that they were engaged in loitering for the purpose of prostitution, and not for some other purpose."
But local transgender advocates said that while courts presume innocence, some police officers do not.
Targeting trans residents?
Erika Smith, the drop-in center coordinator at Different Avenues, said the Prostitution Free Zones are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by city leaders to drive prostitutes and transgender people from D.C.
"I think that’s what it’s really, really, really coming down to," she said. "I think they are trying to get rid of the transgender community."
Smith said officers enforcing the Prostitution Free Zones would likely take an overzealous approach, questioning or arresting more people than the law allows.
"The police, their attitudes are so ‘I don’t care what you’re excuse is, you’re getting locked up,’" she said. "You could have the best explanation in the world. They still don’t care."
Smith said people have spoken out against the proposed Prostitution Free Zones by writing letters of opposition and testifying at city hearings.
Corado said she’s also encouraged people to oppose the Prostitution Free Zones, given its potential to harm local minorities.
"I think that the whole LBGT community needs to take ownership of these issues because when our community, not only gay, not only transgender people, but young people, old people, when they are singled out, it’s a matter of community," she said. "All of us really need to take ownership of these issues."
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