One recent case, in Phoenix, involves Monica Jones, an Arizona State University student and sex worker rights activist. Jones was arrested last year on charges of "manifesting an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution," a misdemeanor crime in Phoenix that carries a minimum penalty of 15 days in jail and up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
In typically myopic legislative language, Phoenix Municipal Code stipulates that a person may be guilty of manifesting prostitution if he or she is "in a public place, a place open to public view or in a motor vehicle on a public roadway and manifests an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution." It goes on to give some examples of what this intent may look like:
the person repeatedly beckons to, stops or attempts to stop or engage passersby in conversation or repeatedly, stops or attempts to stop, motor vehicle operators by hailing, waiving [sic] of arms or any other bodily gesture; that the person inquires whether a potential patron, procurer or prostitute is a police officer or searches for articles that would identify a police officer; or that the person requests the touching or exposure of genitals or female breast.
In May 2013, Jones made the mistake of accepting a ride from an undercover officer. The officer was part of controversial city sting operation known as Project ROSE. (I wrote about the project for an upcoming issue of Reason magazine, and about the officer heading it up as part of a recent post on sex trafficking.) Jones had spoken out against the project the night before, at a local protest, as well as posted ads on Backpage.com warning sex workers about the stings.
"We believe Monica was targeted by the Phoenix police department," Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman, an activist with Phoenix's Sex Worker Outreach Project, said in a 2013 conversation with Tits and Sass blogger Caty Simon. Here's Moskal-Dairman's account of what happened with Jones:
"The evening after she spoke at the protest she was walking to a bar in her neighborhood. She accepted a ride from what turned out to be an undercover cop. He began to solicit her and she warned him he that he should be careful because of the Project ROSE stings that were going on that evening. He kept propositioning her and she asked to be let out of his vehicle. He did not let her out and actually changed lanes so she couldn't exit the car.
Jones asked if the driver was a cop, ostensibly to figure out whether she was being arrested or kidnapped. And bingo: Manifesting prostitution.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona helped Jones challenge the charges, arguing in Phoenix Municipal Court on April 11 that Phoenix's law violates both the Arizona and U.S. Constitutions. "The charge against Jones should be dropped because the manifesting prostitution law … is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad," the ACLU said.
The ACLU also attested that the law infringes on free speech rights and "prohibits conduct that expresses gender identity." Jones says she was (and still frequently is) profiled for being a transgender woman of color. The cops stated that one of the first things that drew them to Jones was her "tight fitting black dress."
The Phoenix Municipal Court ruled against Jones last week. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
The decision has sparked outrage on blogs and social media, with folks rightfully condemning the court's decision and Phoenix's prostitution laws and initiatives. But while Phoenix has one of the most broad statutes against manifesting prostitution—I've yet to see any other bans on "searches for articles that would identify a police officer"—many cities and even whole states still have similar laws on the books.
In eight states—North Carolina, California, Kentucky, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Ohio, and Minnesota—it's illegal to "loiter for the purpose of engaging in prostitution offense." This basically seems to mean "look to cops like a prostitute" in a public space.
Additionally, a number of cities prohibit loitering or manifesting for prostitution purposes. In Arlington, Texas, "engag(ing) in conversation with persons passing by" could get your arrested, and Dallas has a similar law (in 2013, one woman was arrested there or being "engaged in conversation in a high-prostitution area" with a man in a truck). In Portland, Oregon, "lingering in or near any street or public place" or "circling an area in a motor vehicle" suspiciously could be a crime.
New York City, of course, has laws against loitering like a prostitute—which Kate Mogulescu, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society, has described as both arbitrary and discriminatory in their enforcement. In 2010, Mogulescu fought (and won) a conviction charge for a transgender woman picked up after talking to a taxi driver. "These arrests are... set up to be immune from scrutiny and, traditionally, they've been unchallenged," Mogulescu said.
Occasionally, these cases do reach the courts, with mixed results. Among the wins for the state: a 1980 case challenging a Milwaukee loitering for prostitution law; a 1985 case challenging North Carolina's statute; and a 1986 case out of Kansas City.
But judges have long been ruling such statutes unconstitutional, as well. The Supreme Court of Alaska did so back in 1978 (Brown v. Municipality of Anchorage), calling the city of Anchorage's ban on loitering for the purposes of prostitution "unconstitutionally vague." The Supreme Court of Nevada ruled similarly in 2006.
Photo Credit: Liz Kasameyer/Flickr