Police in Hawaii successfully lobbied house lawmakers to leave in place a decades-old provision that allows police to have sex with prostitutes, arguing that the measure is necessary for them to catch individuals who are breaking the law. Critics, however, call it an invitation for misconduct, and at least one lawmaker in the state senate says he will ensure that the provision is killed.
Hawaii lawmakers recently introduced a bill, HB 1926, designed to crack down on prostitution in the state by increasing the penalties for pimps and johns. (Selling sex remains a misdemeanor.) The bill originally excluded the provision that has long provided an exemption for undercover officers who are conducting an investigation, allowing them to have sex with prostitutes without penalty.
In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Police Major Jerry Inouye argued in favor of the provision, saying, “The procedures and conduct of the undercover officers are regulated by department rules, which by nature have to be confidential. Because if prostitution suspects, pimps, and other people are privy to that information, they’re going to know exactly how far the undercover officer can and cannot go.”
Inouye later explained to KITV, “As it is, we are already subject to ‘cop checking’ where prostitution subjects do certain acts or attempt to do certain acts to determine whether the person is an undercover officer.”
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The argument seemed to resonate with some lawmakers. Rep. Karl Rhoads (D-29th District), who serves as the committee chairman, told the Associated Press that police testimony convinced him to amend the proposal. “It’s a really murky area,” said Rhoads. “I was reluctant to interfere in something that they face all the time. If they think it’s necessary to not have it in the statute, this is one area where I did defer to them and say, ‘I hope you’re not having sex with prostitutes.’”
The new law, with the amendment reinstating the provision, passed the committee and the house.
Experts in the state and elsewhere find the exemption alarming. Derek Marsh, who trains police officers in California to handle human trafficking cases, told the AP, “It doesn’t help your case, and at worst you further traumatize someone. And do you think he or she is going to trust a cop again?”
Melissa Farley, executive director of Prostitution Research and Education, in San Francisco, noted that many women who have escaped prostitution often report being coerced into sexual favors by police as a way to avoid arrest.
Lauren Hersh, a former prosecuting attorney who runs the global trafficking program of the women’s advocacy group Equality Now, said, “I can understand you’re in a drug den, and you have a gun to your head and someone says ‘snort this’ [but this rule] is so dissimilar from that circumstance on so many levels.”
And Roger Young, a retired special agent for the FBI from Las Vegas, told the Associated Press, “I don’t know of any state or federal law that allows any law enforcement officer undercover to penetrate or do what this law is allowing.”
The bill now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee Chair Clayton Hee (D-23rd District) said he plans to make sure the provision is not in the final law: “I will tell you that without question I can’t imagine police officers being exempt from the law. To condone police officers’ sexual penetration in making arrests is simply nonsensical to me.”