Overhaul prostitution law


POSTED: Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A state law aimed at depriving prostitutes of their bases of operation on Oahu has been partially struck down by the state Intermediate Court of Appeals because of flawed language that unintentionally protects their customers—johns—from prosecution. The law should be corrected at the earliest opportunity after its years of operation are reviewed for effectiveness.

Patterned after an ordinance in Portland, Ore., the 1988 Hawaii law is intended to give violators of the prostitution prohibition a 30-day jail term or the option to stay out of the area during evening hours. Initially limited to Waikiki, it allowed county councils to add other “;prostitution-free zones,”; and praise of the law prompted the City Council to give the status to Wahiawa, downtown and the Kapiolani Boulevard area.

Most of the arrests are made by undercover police officers, as in the case of Rollie Dumasig Espinosa, who approached an officer posing as a prostitute in February 2008 at the downtown corner of Kukui and Aala streets, according to the court ruling. Espinosa was accused of offering the pretend hooker $40 to engage in sex.

However, the zone law defines prostitution as offering or agreeing to have sex with another person “;in return for a fee.”; In the appellate court's decision acquitting Espinosa, Judge Corinne Watanabe noted that “;it is only the recipient of the fee, and not the payer of the fee, who can commit the offense”; and be prosecuted.

Legislators should have been aware of such wording problems. The 1990 Legislature had corrected similar language in the general prostitution statute by eliminating “;in return”; from preceding “;for a fee”; to make clear that either the prostitute or the john can be found in violation.

Meanwhile, the 1995 Portland prostitution-free zone law and its older drug-free zone law were allowed to expire in September 2007 after Mayor Tom Potter determined that both laws had been ineffective. He based his decision on a study that was confined to drug-free zones.

However, a study released last November by Portland's Multnomah County Sheriff Bob Skipper similarly questioned the effectiveness of the prostitution-free zone. Despite media reports of the “;resurgence of street walkers on 82nd Avenue,”; Skipper observed, both prostitution arrests and drug arrests “;fell to historic lows in the months just after the expiration of the zones in September 2007.”;

The Court of Appeals ruling allows continued arrest of sex solicitors in the specified zones and prosecution of them under the zone statute, but not those accepting solicitations. Although that might seem discriminatory, the law carefully refers to a violator as “;person,”; not he or she.