Pierce County leaders might make it illegal for suspected prostitutes and their customers to attempt to detect undercover officers.
The Pierce County Council is considering the same change Tacoma adopted two years ago. Lakewood approved a more stringent provision in 2009.
The county’s proposal would make it illegal for someone to avoid a prostitution arrest by exposing oneself or asking another to do so; by asking to be touched sexually; or by requesting to touch or touching another sexually.
Often, a refusal to touch means the client is an undercover officer, and the prostitute or john can stop talking to avoid an arrest.
The measure hit a potential bump Friday, when the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said it’s concerned the language isn’t strong enough to hold up in court.
It will be reviewed Tuesday by a County Council committee.
Council member Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said the proposal would protect undercover officers posing as prostitutes, especially when johns ask to touch them in an attempt at detection. Now, officers must decide “do I let the john walk away or do I let them grope me?”
Roach said it also would strengthen Tacoma’s law by making the two jurisdictions consistent. That way, those involved in prostitution wouldn’t have a reason to move from the city limits to the unincorporated county to detect an undercover officer, he said.
Tacoma City Councilman Joe Lonergan said the county’s proposal would help Tacoma police officers if a prostitution investigation led them into the county.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re all playing by the same rules,” he said.
Lonergan said prostitution has been an issue in his district, along Pacific Avenue in the South End. Pacific Avenue extends into unincorporated Pierce County.
Roach said he wasn’t aware of Tacoma’s law until Lonergan informed him about it three weeks ago.
Violating the proposed ordinance would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Roach is sponsoring it with two other council members, Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, and Stan Flemming, R-University Place. If the committee recommends it Tuesday, the full council wouldn’t take action for at least a month, Lonergan said.
Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said the department supports the intent to protect undercover officers. But the department’s prosecutor “feels the writing’s not strong enough to make it successful,” Troyer said.
Troyer said he didn’t know the specific concern.
“We’ll review it and see what we can do to make it stronger,” said Troyer, noting Sheriff Paul Pastor learned about the proposal last week.
County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist said Friday that he’s comfortable with the proposal.
“The intent is good, the concept is good, and I don’t see any significant issue with the language,” he said. “It will work as written, but there is still time to strengthen the language if the sheriff or anybody else wants to give input.”
Lonergan said Tacoma’s law has resulted in several arrests.
One took place during a prostitution sting in March when a Tacoma city employee was cited for attempting to detect an undercover officer in the 9200 block of Pacific Avenue. When the man asked the undercover officer if she was a cop, the officer asked if she looked like a cop. The man said no, but he had to make sure, according to a Tacoma police report.
“You can touch me, I can touch you, and then we’ll know,” he said. That’s when officers arrested him for attempting to detect an undercover officer.
Those kinds of questions prompted Lakewood to take action four years ago.
Assistant police chief Mike Zaro said Lakewood’s law was in response to prostitutes asking undercover officers, “Are you a cop?” and saying, “If you’re not a cop, touch my breast.”
It’s illegal under Lakewood’s law for a suspected prostitute to try to avoid arrest by asking the potential customer if he’s a police officer. The county’s proposal and Tacoma’s law don’t include that provision.
The touching question puts officers in a “very uncomfortable and possibly unethical situation,” Zaro said. “I just don’t think it’s a good situation for officers to be in.”
Zaro said he didn’t know how many times, if any, the law has been used in Lakewood. But it is another tool for making prostitution arrests, he said, and the county’s adoption would help enforcement across jurisdictions.
“It makes sense to have consistent codes and laws so we’re not pushing the problem from one area to the next,” he said.Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 steve.maynard@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/crime @TNTstevemaynard