On the night of January 8, 2020, ten people were taken into custody and charged with prostitution related offenses in Banksville, Pennsylvania, according to WPXI News.
In an effort to target human trafficking and those responsible, Pittsburgh police engaged in an undercover operation to identify persons involved in the illegal sex trade. Detectives, acting under the guise of fake online personas, communicated with individuals by answering ads on websites like Skip the Games and Escort Alligator. Detectives were able to target these individuals and ultimately take them into custody. Many of the suspects were individuals from outside the city, and some were accused of being responsible for transporting the women into the city to perform illicit sex. However, five prostituted persons were also arrested as a result of this sting. They were charged with prostitution and with possessing an instrument of the crime since police found these individuals’ cell phones allegedly used to arrange the “dates.”
During this sting, individuals were charged with possessing an instrument of a crime in conjunction with prostitution as a way to enhance their charges. Pennsylvania’s prostitution statute is graded such that a first or second offense is a misdemeanor of the third degree (not to exceed one year imprisonment and/or a fine note exceeding $2,500); a third offense is a misdemeanor of the second degree (not to exceed two years imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding $5,000); and a fourth or subsequent offense is a misdemeanor of the first degree (not to exceed five years imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding $10,000). Further, a charge for possessing instruments of crime is always graded as a misdemeanor of the first degree (not to exceed five years imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding $10,000).
Police stings similar to this operation far too often target and arrest prostituted persons and not the actual perpetrators of human trafficking. It is imperative that while conducting these investigations, law enforcement authorities understand that prostituted persons are potentially victims and targeting these individuals will not end the horrendous cycle of human trafficking. It is up to the investigators in these situations to identify the true criminals, the individuals responsible for planning and arranging these situations in which victims are forced, defrauded or coercion to participate. In addition, law enforcement should not enhance the charges of prostituted persons that are potentially misidentified as criminals. Possessing instruments of a crime is a violation of 18 Pa.C.S. § 907. A person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he or she possesses any instrument of crime with intent to employ it criminally. Pennsylvania’s statute defines “instrument of crime” as “anything specifically made or specially adapted for criminal use” or “anything used for criminal purposes and possessed by the actor under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for lawful uses it may have.”
It is critical for authorities to understand the possession of a cell phone is essential to a prostituted person’s safety. Prostituted persons are in inherently unsafe situations and are constantly at risk for abuse. Cell phones allow prostituted persons a link to safety in an environment overwhelmed by terror. The practice of charging prostituted persons with additional charges does nothing to end the vicious cycle of the commercial sex trade. The CSE Institute previously reported on the gross injustice of criminalizing condoms; criminalizing the possession of a cell phone warrants the same amount of outrage.
The CSE Institute is discouraged by the Allegheny County Police Department for conducting these investigations as a means to target those responsible for human trafficking, but actually resulting in the criminalization of those who are sexually exploited. It is imperative authorities focus their investigative and prosecutorial resources by targeting the demand for commercial sex. Instead of enhancing charges for prostituted persons, the CSE Institute recommends that law enforcement implement the “Nordic Model,” which exclusively decriminalizes those sold for sex and places the criminalization on those that purchase sex. The truly culpable parties here are the persons who involve victims in illicit sexual activity by force, fraud or coercion as well as those who choose to use their disposable income to engage in otherwise unwanted sex acts with prostituted persons.
The CSE Institute believes those who sell sex, who have traditionally been the target of law enforcement efforts, should be offered social services that address the root causes of commercial sexual exploitation – poverty, trauma, lack of resources, and addiction – to name a few. We also encourage law enforcement and all those involved to provide these victims with the services and exit strategies they need. The CSE Institute stands firm that those who buy sex drive the market for the commercial sex trade, thereby encouraging human trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation. The CSE Institute routinely conducts trainings on trauma-informed law enforcement techniques and protocols. We invite members of Allegheny County law enforcement to attend our trainings and learn more about how to combat commercial sexual exploitation by targeting the demand.