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Prostitutes' 'screening' of undercover cops could result in arrest

LARGO — Prostitutes have started asking Largo's police officers to do naughty things.

It could be an otherwise routine sting, an undercover cop picking up one of the women, or sometimes men, who sell their bodies along Clearwater-Largo Road. But when the time comes to strike a deal, agreeing to exchange money for a sex act, would-be suspects have begun asking for demonstrations that their customers are not police.

An undercover officer might be asked to expose his or her genitalia, or fondle a suspected prostitute's breast. The police call it "screening," and say it has made it extremely difficult to enforce prostitution laws. Were a police officer to expose himself or fondle someone to secure an arrest, "I wouldn't want to explain that in court," said Largo police Sgt. Mike Bruno.

To address this problem, the City Commission recently passed an ordinance that will enable police officers to arrest prostitution suspects even for the mere act of "screening," and for engaging in other behaviors that fall short of actually agreeing to have sex for cash.

The ordinance makes it illegal to ask an undercover police officer to expose his or her sexual organs, or ask the officer to fondle or touch someone else's sexual organs, during encounters that begin on public property (such as roads).

For those with a history of prostitution offenses, a number of acts that could arouse suspicion are also banned, such as repeatedly hailing motorists from the road, making lewd gestures to passers-by, or hiding when police officers appear. To be arrested under that provision, at least three suspicious behaviors must be exhibited.

The law is similar to others that have been passed in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Bruno said it was necessary to beef up prostitution enforcement in Largo, which had ground to a halt because of the prostitutes' sophisticated screening techniques.

"We were really running into a dead end with them," he said.

The St. Petersburg Police Department has had success with its own prostitution ordinance, said spokesman Mike Puetz. Officers have made 76 such arrests since the beginning of 2011 under provisions like those enacted in Largo, he said.

Civil libertarians might be expected to see the lowered bar for arrest as problematic. But Largo Mayor Patricia Gerard said the ordinance had not met any serious opposition when it was before the commission, and that she was comfortable that the language of the law was strict enough to avoid ensnaring innocents.

"The bar is pretty high," she said. "It's not like you're going to accidentally get arrested for prostitution." She said the commission would also be following up with police on how enforcement of the ordinance plays out.

Bruno, who said he first began pushing for the legislation more than a year ago, likewise said he doesn't think the ordinance supplies police with overly broad powers.

"It's restrictive to the point of being overly safe," he said.

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Prostitutes' 'screening' of undercover cops could result in arrest 04/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 4:33pm]

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