August 21, 2006
Rhode Island's Weird Prostitution Law, and Why the ACLU Doesn't Want it Changed
Many Rhode Islanders have been surprised to learn, as reported by Amanda Milkovits in the Projo, that "prostitution isn't illegal in Rhode Island as long as it occurs indoors". The issue was brought to light by a Federal law-enforcement multi-state raid against a thriving network of spa-brothels that included at least one site in Providence.
A previous article by Ms. Milkovits from last year described how legalized prostitution in Rhode Island evolved out of change in state law and an unexpected court decision...
There are clusters of massage parlors, which the police say are actually brothels, operating throughout the state. The police raid them, but charges of prostitution don't stick because of a -year-old loophole in the law.(The bracketed numerals indicate where I've advanced the relative dates by one year, since the above excerpt is now about one year old).
The state's law criminalizing prostitution was changed then after a group of female prostitutes sued in federal court with claims that the Providence police were discriminating against women in their arrests.
The law at the time made prostitution a felony. The General Assembly amended the law to the current version of loitering for indecent purposes, a misdemeanor. The law targets the streetwalkers, their pimps, and customers who solicit them from their vehicles. But there is no provision for prostitutes working for escort services and brothels.
Up until  1/2 years ago, the Providence police were charging women for prostitution inside massage parlors. They stopped after Warwick lawyer Michael J. Kiselica persuaded District Court judges to dismiss the cases based on the wording of the current law.
Last year, legislators proposed outlawing prostitution in a straightforward way, while still keeping it as a misdemeanor. The new law would have read...
A person is guilty of prostitution when such person engages or agrees or offers to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee. Any person found guilty under this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor...The above language would have superseded the existing section 11-34-8 of Rhode Island's General Laws, the section judged not to apply to indoor prostitution...
It shall be unlawful for any person to stand or wander in or near any public highway or street, or any public or private place, and attempt to engage passersby in conversation, or stop or attempt to stop motor vehicles, for the purpose of prostitution or other indecent act, or to patronize, induce, or otherwise secure a person to commit any indecent act. Any person found guilty under this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor...Other sections of existing state law already outlaw pimping and human trafficking in Rhode Island in all circumstances, indoors or out.
The proposed change would not have set Rhode Island onto an uncharted path regarding prostitution law, but simply have brought Rhode Island into line with the 48 other states that make prostitution illegal. Still, progressive lobbyists objected to changing the law arguing, as is their habit, that a law that functions smoothly in 48 other states would create untenable conditions if passed in Rhode Island. Leading the charge, the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU cited two issues. One was the original argument that the law could be used to punish women who might themselves be victims. The second objection was more indirect: enforcing a law against indoor prostitution might create local police contact with illegal immigrants, thus leading local police towards working with Federal authorities...
There is yet another reason to oppose what has happened here and that involves the inappropriate collaboration between the local police and federal immigration agents to address a local community crime issue....The ACLU, apparently, opposes communication between different law enforcement authorities. Blinded by their institutional hostility towards law enforcement, the ACLU has reached the erroneous and destructive conclusion that trust can be built between a community and its police officers when police officers are required to stand helpless in the face of the violation of basic, decent community norms (i.e. that prostitution should be illegal). I've been critical of Providence Mayor David Cicilline on other issues, but he's right to pursue this change in the law, even if changing the law involves taking the "drastic" step of allowing different branches of law enforcement to work together.
However, if local law enforcement officers become, for all intents and purposes, INS agents in the minds of the immigrant community, any trust that currently exists will be shattered. Victims of crimes, witnesses, and others in tight-knit immigrant communities will refuse to cooperate with police for fear that they, or close friends and family members, could face deportation due to their interaction with police. It is of little solace that the women who were the victims of these raids may have been violating the criminal law. Once the police department believes that it can use federal immigration officials as a shortcut for local criminal law enforcement, the bonds of trust are inevitably weakened.
Finally, to finish up on a mostly inappropriate note in Bill Reynolds-style: There's no truth to the rumor that Senate President Joseph Montalbano will argue that his unreported business with the town of West Warwick did not violate current state law because all of the agreements were made indoors.