Three prostitution investigations in Lancaster County since 2018 involved law enforcement receiving sexual services, staff writers Lindsey Blest and Hurubie Meko reported in last week’s Sunday LNP. The reporters were told the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office did not have a policy on what is needed to make a prostitution arrest, and that the required evidence depends on the case.
Undercover detectives undertake some of the most challenging — and dangerous — investigations in policing, and we’re grateful they do.
But the police work described by Blest and Meko was horrendous. Some experts also believe — and we agree — that it was unlawful.
Blest and Meko wrote of an episode that took place during an afternoon in February.
An undercover detective with the county’s drug task force arrived at Angel Spa in New Holland for a 2 p.m. massage appointment. Finding the building’s door locked, the detective dialed the phone number he’d called previously and, within 30 seconds, was met by a Chinese woman who walked from across the street and let him inside.
He paid $40 for the massage. “Afterward,” Blest and Meko wrote, “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.”
The detective had allowed the woman to perform a sex act on him for several minutes.
‘Not a best practice’
Even more appalling: Blest and Meko report that a similar scene played out in two other arrests in Lancaster County since 2018: “Two other women were charged with prostitution after undercover drug task force officers paid for and received some type of sexual act,” they wrote. “And like the woman in the New Holland case, the other women spoke limited English.”
Having an undercover officer engage in a sex act is not a “best practice,” Jane Anderson, an attorney adviser for AEquitas, a Washington, D.C.-based victim advocate organization, told LNP.
That’s putting it mildly.
It not only makes a prosecution harder to win: As Anderson — a former assistant state attorney with Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami — said, “I would have a hard time defending a sexual act.”
It’s also unseemly. Police officers are government agents. Most taxpayers, we’re guessing, would object to underwriting such acts.
Blest and Meko noted that in a 2009 appeal before the state Superior Court, three justices upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a case in which an informant — using money provided to him by the state police — engaged in several sexual acts with a masseuse before police made an arrest.
The case was dismissed for what the justices considered to be “outrageous government conduct.”
Outrageous is the word. Utterly unnecessary applies, too.
Threshold for evidence
Shea Rhodes, director and co-founder of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, told LNP that the threshold for evidence should be nothing more than a request for a sex act and a response, such as: “How much for a particular sex act? Twenty dollars.”
As Blest and Meko reported, the evidence of a discussion of services and a money exchange can be enough to result in a conviction. If language is a barrier, gestures can suffice.
They cited a May jury trial in which a woman was found guilty of prostitution at an East Lampeter Township hotel. The police strategy in that case: An undercover officer arranged to pay $150 for sexual activity. He did not, however, engage in sexual activity.
Rhodes spent nearly 10 years as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, so she’s familiar with the terrain of prostitution cases.
“I firmly believe a police officer should not engage in sexual activity to facilitate an arrest,” Rhodes told LNP.
She said the sex act the Lancaster County detective paid for in the New Holland case is, by definition, illegal.
“He committed the crime to create evidence,” Rhodes said.
Undercover officers may buy drugs before making an arrest, but they don’t use the drugs, she pointed out.
And she noted, importantly: “These are humans that are being exploited.”
Prostitutes often perform sex work because of circumstance or coercion.
Brett Hambright, spokesman for the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office, told LNP that in “every prostitution investigation, the trafficking aspect is explored.”
That’s all the more reason for police officers to refrain from engaging in sexual acts to make prostitution arrests. As Anderson pointed out, it can make building a relationship with a potentially trafficked woman difficult. How is a woman coerced into prostitution to trust someone who took advantage of her vulnerability?
As Blest and Meko reported, “Pennsylvania ranks fifth in the U.S. for the number of suspected trafficking in massage parlor cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, according to Polaris, the organization that runs the hotline.”
They cited a 2018 Polaris report that found that many women who are trafficked to work in massage parlors in the U.S. recently arrived from China or South Korea, speak little or no English and have been recruited through ads that misrepresented the work they were to do.
Blest and Meko also cited a report released in May by the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation that proposes that on-duty sexual activity by a police officer, including that aimed at building a case against a prostituted person, should be criminalized in Pennsylvania. We strongly support this proposal.
In the case of the Chinese woman charged with prostitution at the New Holland spa, investigators did not find evidence to support charging anyone but her, Hambright told LNP.
That did not make the officer’s conduct any more OK.
The district attorney’s office agreed that the sexual contact of several minutes’ duration was “entirely inappropriate,” Hambright said, and was not required to support a charge or conviction.
“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.
We’re somewhat heartened by this. But only somewhat. Why wasn’t there a crystal-clear policy in place?
And Hambright declined to say whether the undercover detective was disciplined. He merely said “the matter was dealt with.”
Hambright likewise refused to say if disciplinary measures were taken in the two other cases in which a drug task force officer engaged in a sex act. Did these three cases involve three different officers?
Why not offer assurances that disciplinary measures were imposed?
We’re also concerned by the fundamental nature of these prostitution cases.
We agree with Rhodes that undercover stings inside massage businesses should be replaced by stings to target buyers.
As she pointed out, “The whole reason it’s happening is because of the demand.”
And it’s highly probable that individual prostitutes, whether trafficked or not, have difficult lives already. No child grows up aspiring to perform sex acts on strangers in seedy massage parlors. These people need help out of lives often marred by addiction, poverty, family abandonment and sexual abuse.
Anderson proposes throwing out the undercover model and building cases that are “more sophisticated.”
As Blest and Meko reported, "Many police departments have started approaching prostitution cases as white-collar crimes by looking through financial records to make cases of tax evasion or money laundering.”
These methods may be time-consuming and costly and, as Anderson said, require “buy-in from the top.”
But if, as Hambright says, trafficking investigations are a priority of county law enforcement, this is the path investigators should take here.
Lancaster County has been battling prostitution for decades; Route 30/Lincoln Highway East long has been a prostitution corridor.
Arresting individual prostitutes isn’t going to do much to stem prostitution here. Instead, the focus should be on rooting out human trafficking, and targeting the individuals in the equation whom we can be certain are involved by choice.
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888