TAMPA — Drivers who try to solicit a prostitute or buy drugs from behind the wheel could have to pay $500 to get their cars out of the city's impound lot under an ordinance that Thursday won the initial approval of the City Council.
Nearly a dozen civic leaders from neighborhoods in or near East Tampa, Seminole Heights and Ybor City urged the council to pass the ordinance.
They described finding used syringes in their yards, picking up used condoms and rubber gloves in gutters and seeing streetwalkers dropped off within 10 yards of children waiting at school bus stops.
"We have a serious problem in East Tampa when it comes to prostitution and drugs that are being funneled through that area," said Essie Sims Jr., chairman of the East Tampa Partnership, an association of 15 neighborhood groups. "We want to help clean up our community the best we can."
The city passed a similar law in 1997, championed by then-City Council member and current Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
"I think it was probably the most effective tool we've ever had to deal with street-level prostitution," Buckhorn said this week.
But similar ordinances from around Florida have faced years of legal challenges, with cases from South Florida going to the Florida Supreme Court twice.
Along the way, the city repealed its original ordinance, which still faces a legal challenge of its own, and has since rewritten parts of it to put it on more solid legal ground.
The city currently impounds vehicles when their drivers are arrested for patronizing a hooker, but the cars are released once the owner pays towing and storage costs that are typically less than $150.
Under the new ordinance, the owner also would have to pay $500 to get the car.
Owners who didn't realize a non-owner was going to use the car to pick up a prostitute or buy drugs could get it back without having to pay the $500. After that driver's first arrest, however, owners would lose the ability to claim they didn't know the driver might use the car for those crimes.
Council members approved the ordinance 6-1, with Mary Mulhern voting no. She said she sympathizes with neighborhoods, but the struggling economy means many families have only one car, and an increasing number live out of them.
That makes it a bad time to deprive an entire family the use of a car, unless they have the $500 fee, because of the actions of one member, she said.
"I just don't think we should be punishing individuals who have nothing to do with the crime," she said.
But proponents say the law effectively targets the clients who create the demand for the streetwalkers roaming their neighborhoods.
"We've got to send a message that this is not a victimless crime," Buckhorn said. "The neighbors and the neighborhoods around these areas of high-traffic prostitution are the victims in this."
A final vote is schedule for 9:30 a.m. Dec. 15.