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A massage parlor sting led to more training for a detective. What's the standard for prostitution arrests in Lancaster County?

Massage Parlors

When the undercover detective arrived at Angel Spa, the door was locked.

He dialed the number he had called earlier to arrange his 2 p.m. Feb. 21 appointment.

Within 30 seconds, a petite Chinese woman walked across the street and let him into the New Holland business.

The massage cost $40. Afterward, the woman simulated masturbation with her hands and said, “You want?”

After asking how much, the detective gave her $20. The woman used her hand to perform a sex act on the detective “for several minutes,” according to charging documents. At 2:35 p.m., the detective summoned four other detectives who had been surveying the area to enter the building.

The woman was charged with prostitution.

A similar scene has played out in two arrests since 2018 in Lancaster County, police charging documents show.

Two other women were charged with prostitution after undercover drug task force officers paid for and received some type of sexual act. And like the woman in the New Holland case, the other women spoke limited English.

The Lancaster County district attorney’s office does not have a policy on what is needed to make a prostitution arrest. The evidence needed depends on the case, according to the office.

The detective in the New Holland case received extra training after District Attorney Craig Stedman learned about the contact during the arrest, Stedman’s spokesman said. It’s not clear what, if anything, happened to the other officers.

The four other prostitution arrests made last year make no mention of any physical contact during their investigations, according to charging documents. None of the arrests involved the drug task force, and all of the women were proficient in English.

The cases show the complexity of undercover prostitution arrests in Lancaster County and call into question the threshold of evidence needed to make a case.

Angel Spa

This is Angel Spa 436 W. Main St. in New Holland Thursday, Mar. 7, 2019. A woman was arrested there and charged with prostitution Feb. 21.

‘Not the way they used to’

Four months after her arrest, Zhimin Wang, 59, who is from China and in the U.S. on a work permit, stood before Lancaster County Judge Donald Totaro.

Her defense attorney, Lorraine Russell Hagy, said Wang performed a sex act on the Lancaster County Drug Task Force detective during the undercover operation.

“That's not the way they used to conduct these operations,” said Totaro, who became a judge in 2007 after serving as the Lancaster County district attorney from 1999 to 2007.

Woman charged with prostitution in New Holland accepted into a diversionary program

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Lefever responded by shrugging.

Totaro accepted Wang — charged with owning a prostitution business, which is a felony, and with working at a prostitution business, which is a misdemeanor — into a court diversionary program. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Wang can have her record expunged if she follows a set of guidelines, including maintaining employment.

Her landlord evicted her in April because the police activity violated the terms of her lease, and the spa closed.

More training

The district attorney’s office declined to say whether the undercover detective was disciplined but said “the matter was dealt with,” including an ongoing “reemphasis of training requirements,” according to office spokesman Brett Hambright.

“Steps were immediately taken to ensure all officers involved in these sorts of details have appropriate training and that additional training, if necessary, is implemented,” he said.

The drug task force is a unit of Lancaster County detectives and officers from municipal departments with county-wide jurisdiction. Their primary focus is drug investigations, but they sometimes help with other undercover operations.

The “several minutes” of contact was “entirely inappropriate,” Hambright said, and was not required to support a charge or conviction, or in line with training protocol.

Hambright did not answer questions about whether officers were disciplined in the two other cases involving county drug task force officers in 2018.

Lancaster County district attorney's office wants to start a sex trafficking task force

In the first, a drug task force detective paid a woman for a massage at Therapeutic Massage in Ephrata in March 2018. The woman requested that he undress. He did, and he gave her $60. She “proceeded to place her hands on the undercover detective’s” genitals, according to charging documents.

In the second, a drug task force detective made an appointment for a massage at the Neff Spa in Manheim Township in July 2018. At the end of the massage, the woman started touching the detective’s genitals and asked that he pay $60 more for the service. The detective gave her $40, and “she continued,” according to charging documents.

According to an LNP review of 11 cases in which women were charged with prostitution from 2014 to 2017, police made arrests using a variety of methods. None involved an officer receiving a sexual act, according to charging documents, including a 2014 case that involved a drug task force detective. Also, all of the women were proficient in English.

Complex investigations

Prostitution investigations can be “complex,” and the law does not define what conduct meets the threshold for criminal conduct, Hambright said.

“The crime consists of an agreement of cost for a sexual service or act, followed by ensuing conduct on the part of the individual (not the officer) to perform agreed-upon act,” he said.

The district attorney’s office does not have a blanket policy for meeting the burden of proof in prostitution cases, Hambright said. Nor does it for any other crime, he said.

That varies from case to case. And a language barrier can be a big factor: If a bargain is verbalized, that is likely enough, Hambright said.

“If the person does not speak English, then we might need more in order to establish the crime and prove it. Having said that, there are limits of how far things should go,” he said.

Police also have to be aware of entrapment, or an investigative act that puts a suspect in a scenario they did not intend to be in, Hambright said.

Greg Rowe, director of legislation and policy for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said part of the challenge is getting enough proof aside from circumstantial evidence.

“It’s fair to say that receiving a completed sexual act is not ideal,” Rowe said. “But every case is going to be different.”

Examining the threshold

Having an undercover officer engage in a sex act is not a “best practice,” said Jane Anderson, an attorney adviser for AEquitas, a D.C.-based victim advocate organization.

Doing so creates an uphill battle for the prosecutor who is on the case, she said.

As a former assistant state attorney with Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami, “I would have a hard time defending a sexual act,” she said.

Anderson understands the challenges that police face in prostitution arrests. In some cases, a suspect might test the buyer’s physical limits to figure out if they are a police officer or not, she said.

“They’ll ask the undercover officer to get naked; they’ll touch the undercover officer’s groin area; they’ll make the undercover officer touch them in some way,” she said.

That’s when an officer’s training should come in and when they would need to figure out another way to elicit solicitation, Anderson said.

Even if there is a language barrier, it’s up to the officer to secure an agreement verbally or through gestures, she said.

Shea Rhodes, director and co-founder of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, said the threshold for evidence should be nothing more than a request for a sex act and a response.

“How much for a particular sex act? Twenty dollars,” Rhodes said as an example. Rhodes’ career includes nearly 10 years as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. She founded the Villanova institute in 2014 and is a legal expert on state laws related to sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

“I firmly believe a police officer should not engage in sexual activity to facilitate an arrest,” she said.

Rhodes has been following updates in the New Holland case. By definition, the sex act the detective paid for is illegal, she said.

“He committed the crime to create evidence,” Rhodes said.

People will argue that undercover officers similarly buy drugs before making an arrest, she said.

“They’re not using the drugs. These are humans that are being exploited,” she said of prostitution arrests.

The Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation released a report in May that, in part, proposes that on-duty sexual activity by a police officer, including to build a case against a prostituted person, should be criminalized in Pennsylvania.

Other ways

Robert Beyer, a criminal defense attorney in Lancaster, represented the woman charged at the Ephrata spa. He declined to comment on his client’s case but spoke generally about prostitution arrests.

“I don’t know if the cops go too far. The cops don’t want to do it,” he said of physical contact during arrests. “Their buddies are in the surveillance van watching.”

Plus, Beyer said, there are other ways to go about an investigation.

“You are going to get enough crime” from surveillance, taping or talking to customers in the parking lot when they leave, he said.

“When the average john comes out, if all of a sudden you sit him in a cop car, he’ll talk,” Beyer said.

Massage Parlors

Angel Spa in New Holland Thursday March 21, 2019.

One investigation last year used that method. Pennsylvania State Police troopers charged a woman with prostitution after interviewing two men who were seen leaving a room at an East Lampeter Township hotel, according to court documents.

Another recent Lancaster County case shows that the evidence of a discussion of services and a money exchange can be enough to result in a conviction.

In a May jury trial, a woman was found guilty of prostitution at an East Lampeter Township hotel. Police ran an undercover investigation in February 2018 prompted by an online ad. According to charging documents, an undercover officer arranged to pay $150 “for sexual activity.”

“We have a specific ops plan that we draw up ahead of time. Everyone is very aware of the rules of our ops plan,” said East Lampeter Township Police Detective Christopher Jones, who filed the charge. He has handled numerous other prostitution-related cases. Route 30/Lincoln Highway East, which runs through East Lampeter Township, historically has been a corridor for prostitution.

Jones declined to comment when asked about the New Holland case. He instead stuck with comments about his department and the recent trial.

He did say this: “I would have been completely comfortable with anyone from the public sitting in on that trial and sitting in on the investigation we did.”

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