Police in the capital of Hawaii are urging lawmakers to maintain an exemption in a law that allows undercover officers to have sex with prostitutes during investigations.
Honolulu Police argue that the clause enables them to catch lawbreakers in the act, citing apparent situations where prostitutes insist on sex in order to identify undercover officers.
Their argument has shocked sex trade campaigners and law enforcement experts, who say that many prostitutes are forced into their work.
Legislators have been working to modernise Hawaii’s decades old prostitution laws this year, and have so far toughened penalties on pimps who use prostitutes.
They also proposed scrapping the sex exemption for officers on duty, but the legislation was amended to restore the protection after Honolulu Police said it protects investigations, during a testimony,
They also assured lawmakers that internal policies and procedures are in place to prevent officers from taking advantage of the clause.
“The procedures and conduct of the undercover officers are regulated by department rules, which by nature have to be confidential,” Honolulu Police Major Jerry Inouye told the House Judiciary Committee.
The revised proposal passed the state House and will go before a Senate committee on Friday.
Selling sex would remain a petty misdemeanor under the proposal.
“I don't know of any state or federal law that allows any law enforcement officer undercover to ... do what this law is allowing,” said Roger Young, a retired special agent who for more than 20 years worked sex crimes for the FBI from Las Vegas and who has trained vice squads around the country.
“Once we agree on the price and the sex act, that's all that you need. That breaks the law.”
“Police abuse is part of the life of prostitution,” said Melissa Farley, the executive director of the San Francisco-based group Prostitution Research and Education.
Farley added that in places without such police protections “women who have escaped prostitution” commonly report being coerced into giving police sexual favors to keep from being arrested.
The Honolulu Police vice officers, who investigate prostitution, haven't been accused of sexual wrongdoing in recent times, spokeswoman Michelle Yu said, but added that in 2011 a parole officer was fired after being charged and convicted of sexual assault against a prostitute.
Charlie Fuller, executive director of the International Association of Undercover Officers, said good investigators always have other options.
“A good undercover,” he said, “is going to get probable cause before they have to cross that line.”