Politics & Government

Bill would let police in Washington seize property from johns seeking sex

State lawmakers are looking to crack down on people who patronize prostitutes in Washington by establishing a way to seize their property.

House Bill 1558 would make vehicles and other property subject to seizure and forfeiture by law enforcement when they are used or intended to be used in soliciting a prostitute.

Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, said he wants the state to shift the focus from punishing prostitutes to targeting the johns who frequent them, in addition to protecting victims of sex trafficking.

“It is the buyers of sex that are keeping this cancer alive,” Muri said. “If the demand for prostitution decreases, so will the profitability of the trade.”

Muri’s bill was given a hearing Friday in the House Public Safety Committee.

State law already authorizes the seizure of property used in cases of commercial sexual abuse of a minor, promoting the sexual abuse of a minor and promoting prostitution in the first degree.

By adding patronizing a prostitute to the list, law enforcement can seize any means of transportation used by the individual paying for sex, along with all money and other tangible property involved in the transaction.

Advocates of the bill say the legislation would help reduce sex trafficking in the state and protect victims of the industry.

Tim Heffer from the Justice and Mercy Foundation said seizing the property would add fear to johns by upping the consequences they’d face for buying sex.

“This bill says to survivors, ‘We’re on your side, we stand by you, and those who control you are now out of their control and stripped of their ability to harm you,’ ” he said.

However, opponents of the bill testified it would do more harm than good for workers in the sex industry and victims of sex trafficking.

Ronan Kelly from the Seattle Clinic Defense said the legislation would push prostitute-customer relations deeper into the shadows and force women in the sex industry to make riskier decisions to avoid getting caught.

“It’s not ethical to pass a law that puts people at risk of illness and injury,” she said.

Advocates for workers in the sex industry said they’d prefer legislation that decriminalizes prostitution and promotes amnesty and free speech.

Savannah Sly from the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Seattle said that while she’s aware of exploitation in the industry, some women work as prostitutes as a preferred source of income. She said policymakers should focus on stopping the trafficking of unwilling children and adults, not on sexual activities between consenting adults.

“It’s sort of painting an entire demographic of people all as predators and monsters,” she said. “And we want to highlight that there’s a huge difference between consenting adults getting together and having their private affairs, and a predator who would prey upon a 13-year-old child.”