Jack Evans wants to embarrass johns out of the District, courtesy of a bill he introduced to the D.C. Council last week.
The Anti-Prostitution Vehicle Impoundment Enforcement Amendment Act of 2015, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Anita Bonds, Brianne Nadeau, and Yvette Alexander, aims to create a culture of shame around soliciting sex. The bill “would specifically require the Metropolitan Police Department to impound a vehicle that a police officer has probable cause to believe is being used in furtherance of a violation of a prostitution-related offense,” according to a release from Evans’ office.
Evans refers to it as the “Honey, I lost the car” bill: That’s the moniker he gave it in 1998, when a similar draft passed in the Council but was later declared unconstitutional by the D.C. Court of Appeals (that version of the bill allowed for the sale of vehicles that were seized). He reintroduced legislation allowing vehicle seizures to the Council in 2005, and the bill’s provisions were absorbed into a larger anti-prostitution omnibus act that became law in 2006.
“Prostitution is a regional business. It goes from Richmond to Montreal, and it goes to the jurisdiction that is the least resistant,” Evans says. “I want every john who drives into the District of Columbia to know that they risk losing their car that night.”
Per D.C. Code, MPD can currently arrange for the Department of Public Works to impound a vehicle belonging to someone who has been arrested for a “prostitution-related offense.” This new bill requires MPD to seize the vehicles and removes the provision on police coordination with DPW.
“The procedure outlined in the code section is particularly cumbersome and time consuming for the police officers,” says Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union. “Its deterrent benefit is questionable since the vehicle cannot be forfeited and will almost always be returned to the john upon release from custody.”
Evans says he introduced the latest bill partly because street-level prostitution is the “most visible” kind of sex work in District neighborhoods, and because in his 24 years on the Council, vehicle seizure has been one of the “most successful” mechanisms of deterring prostitution.
And if the DPW provision is removed, Evans’ office believes the law can be more effective.
“This coordination, we believe, was cumbersome and contributed to the measure not being widely utilized,” says Thomas Lipinsky, Evans’ director of communications.
MPD through a spokeswoman declined to comment on the bill or provide statistics.
Evans says there’s “huge chatter” from Ward 2 residents about an increase in street-level prostitution, or what he refers to as “showgirl” prostitution—“highly visible, scantily clad women walking around the streets, in alleys, having sex.” It’s not a new problem, but Evans says it’s getting worse: At a community crime meeting on July 9 in Logan Circle that both Evans and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier attended, street-level prostitution was “the number one thing” that was discussed.
Charlie Bengel, an ANC commissioner for the area, says prostitution “is the number one public safety complaint that I receive.” “Residents are fed up seeing condoms in the alleys, courts, and parking lots, and prostitutes on the corner when trying to get to work, church or walk a child to school,” he says via email.
Johns are the easiest to catch, Evans says, and therefore the “most economical” part of prostitution to target. MPD seems to agree. Its Human Trafficking Unit arrested ten men in downtown D.C. on July 14 as part of a prostitution sting; 20 other men have been arrested in the same area since, and all 30 were charged with solicitation of prostitution. (After this story went to print, police made an additional seven arrests on July 22 and July 23. Six men were charged with solicitation, and one man was charged with pandering.)
“The current enforcement efforts were focused on the ‘customers’ in reverse-style operations,” First District Commander Jeff Brown said in a listserv email. “These arrests have made a noticeable difference to the community and the enforcement efforts will continue.”
The point of the bill is not to increase arrests, Evans said during its introduction, but to get prostitution out of D.C. It’s the same idea behind “prostitution-free zones,” which were legalized in the 2006 Omnibus Public Safety Act and allowed MPD officers with “reasonable belief” that a group of two or more people were sex workers to force that group to vacate the area. If they didn’t comply, MPD officers could arrest them.
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso led the ultimately successful movement to repeal the law, arguing in an op-ed last year that prostitution-free zones reinforced biases against women of color and transgender women. After D.C.’s attorney general declared in 2012 that the zones were likely unconstitutional, MPD stopped enforcing the law.
Cyndee Clay, executive director of the nonprofit Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, argues that if neighborhoods are seeing an increase in street-level prostitution (a claim she questions), it’s a result of the prostitution-free zones.
“The city made a very intentional choice when they instituted prostitution-free zones to move people who were doing sex work out of downtown and push people into the neighborhoods,” she says.
In reality, most sex workers are now advertising online, not walking the streets. One of the more commonly used sites, Backpage.com, hosts ads from voluntary sex workers, but it also is a hotbed for sex trafficking.
“The Internet has changed the game,” Burton says. “Resources aren’t there to attack that portion [of trafficking] as vigorously as we should. That’s where the exploitation of women and children thrives.”
Andrea Powell, founder of FAIR Girls, an organization that serves and mentors survivors of sex trafficking, says about 90 percent of her clients were marketed online, where the transactions are “off the books.” Her team works with MPD’s Human Trafficking Unit to scan “hardcore” trafficking websites like these for potential victims. She says ads are placed online for girls using soft language—“roses in exchange for time” is one example of an ad Powell might find there—making it hard to determine who’s a victim of trafficking and who’s a voluntary sex worker.
Powell says it’s not her goal to have voluntary sex workers arrested, and that MPD has been less inclined to pursue leads on Backpage if the ad doesn’t include a victim of trafficking.
And while Evans’ bill targets johns in the District, Powell says it won’t deter them from seeking paid sex in nearby areas. About 45 percent of the 140 trafficking victims Powell works with are from Prince George’s County.
“[Johns] aren’t going to see this and say, ‘Oh, shit’ and go to Delaware,” Powell says.
Evans, meanwhile, is focused on getting johns out of the District. “They can go to Maryland and Virginia,” he says.
While Evans says the intent of the bill is to impound the vehicles of johns, Clay worries that sex workers’ vehicles could theoretically also be impounded. Economic limitations are a sex worker’s biggest obstacle, so having their vehicles impounded is dangerous to their livelihood and chances of escaping poverty. They wouldn’t have access to social services, for example, or be able to pick up their kids from child care, Clay says.
Evans’ bill was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, which will decide whether to schedule a hearing on the legislation when the Council reconvenes this fall. While we’ll have to stay tuned to get MPD’s opinion on the bill, Burton says he’s not convinced of its effectiveness.
“Unfortunately, what I’ve learned over the last 23 years is that wherever there’s a demand for something, someone is going to provide it,” Burton says. “I don’t think the demand is going anywhere. Not in my lifetime.”
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery