“Operation Flush the Johns” Reply

New York Daily News

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Frank Eltman

Monday, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice announced the arrest of 104 men on charges of soliciting a prostitute at a news conference.

It is hard to imagine a bigger waste of law enforcement resources than “Operation Flush the Johns,” the month-long sting that resulted in 104 arrests announced by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice on Monday.

These men, whose names and photos Rice eagerly disseminated, were arrested because of what they allegedly said to undercover cops they arranged to meet after seeing their “escort” services advertised on Backpage.com.

What’s at issue, in other words, is a trumped-up version of a phony crime. If anyone committed a real crime here, it was the cops, who lured these poor horny bastards to a hotel room under false pretenses, only to lead them away in handcuffs.

The offense with which the Nassau 104 were charged — which carries a penalty of up to a year in jail, along with the ritual humiliation Rice already has meted out — is patronizing a prostitute in the third degree.

Think about that for a minute. There is no such thing as patronizing a pornographer in the third degree, patronizing a liquor dealer in the third degree or patronizing a race track in the third degree. That is because New York’s legislators have decided to allow these consensual transactions, even though moralists take a dim view of them, while prohibiting the voluntary exchange of sex for money.

That dictate entails some pretty arbitrary distinctions. If two people meet through an online ad, one buys the other a nice dinner and they have sex afterward, they have committed no crime. But if two people meet through an online ad and have sex, after which one of them hands the other $100 so she can buy herself a nice dinner, they may both be subject to arrest, depending on the exact content of their precoitus conversation.

Those are not the sort of details on which criminal liability should hinge, because they do not involve the violation of anyone’s rights.

Rice defends punishing these men for words they allegedly said to fake prostitutes by arguing that she is thereby protecting real prostitutes from risk.

“Sex workers are often vulnerable victims of traffickers and pimps,” she said in a press release on Monday. “Yet they too often remain the prime targets in prostitution investigations while the johns who fuel the exploitation are treated as mere witnesses. My office and the police department are turning the tables on the illogical and immoral nature of that equation.”

Talk about illogical and immoral. The prostitution ban that Rice enthusiastically enforces makes sex workers vulnerable to abuse by traffickers, pimps and customers because it drives their trade underground, where the assistance of the legal system is hard to come by.

Indeed, as Rice herself notes, prohibition makes sex workers vulnerable to abuse by the police and courts as well. In this lawless environment, important distinctions — between adults and minors, between employees and slaves — are apt to be disregarded.

Similar problems can be observed whenever the government bans a widely demanded product or service. The black markets created by such edicts are dangerous places characterized by fraud and violence, in contrast with the honesty and peace that tend to prevail in legal versions of those very same markets. Contrast the prostitution business in New York and in Nevada, or the booze business before and after December 1933.

Like alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition creates hazardous conditions for buyers and sellers alike. But while our criminal justice system tends to come down harder on drug dealers than on drug users, with the former perceived as preying on the latter, law enforcement officials like Rice argue that in the case of prostitution, those roles are reversed: The buyer is the villain, while the seller is the victim. What anti-prostitution crusaders do not see or refuse to acknowledge is the role they play in creating the victims they claim to be saving.

Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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