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Tampa police announce new rule to fight prostitution

TAMPA — Police announced a new rule Thursday night that has helped them arrest prostitutes near infamous Nebraska Avenue — even when they're not caught in the act.

Under the new effort, anyone convicted in Hillsborough County of three or more prostitution charges can be prohibited from a 6 1/2 square-mile area.

Called the "prostitution exclusion zone," the area runs between Florida Avenue to the west, Fowler Avenue to the north, 15th Street to the east and Seventh Avenue to the south.

Down the center runs Nebraska Avenue, a corridor that long has been known for prostitution — much to the chagrin of neighborhood leaders in the University Community Area, Old Seminole Heights and V.M. Ybor.

"Seventy percent of our prostitution activity and arrests are in this area," said police Chief Jane Castor. "In response to the neighbors complaints, we worked closely with the State Attorney's Office to implement this."

Since the November launch, officers have made three arrests of known prostitutes who were restricted from the area. Six more have had the condition added to their sentences, said Capt. Lee Bercaw, a Tampa police officer.

"On my way to work in the morning, I used to see them on the back streets — the guys and under-dressed girls working. Now I can drive at 7:30 in the morning and not see anyone on the streets," said Irene Matthews, 56, of Southeast Seminole Heights.

The announcement comes on the heels of other efforts to fight prostitution and other illicit activity in the city.

The Tampa City Council has increased fines for johns and drug users. And while police already have the authority to impound vehicles when a prostitution or drug arrest is made, the council agreed in December to raise the cost of reclaiming the vehicle to $500.

The new exclusion zone is neither a law nor a city ordinance.

"No ordinance can ban people from a certain area," said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

Instead, it's a rule that judges can include as a condition of probation for anyone convicted of felony prostitution. It can also be part of a pretrial intervention.

The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office makes the recommendation. A judge makes the decision.

Anyone breaking the condition could be arrested on a violation of probation charge, though the booking likely wouldn't be immediate. Authorities would need to run the circumstances by probation officials first.

And there are exceptions: Those convicted of felony prostitution could go inside the area for doctor appointments, probation meetings, social services, to see an attorney or to go to work.

If such a person lives in the zone, authorities could tailor the condition or the person might have to move, said Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore.

He said that in addition to cleaning up the Nebraska corridor, he hopes the program will help rehabilitate offenders who would otherwise keep returning.

"This helps break the cycle," he said.

It could make it easier for police to do something about a prostitution complaint.

Before, when someone reported an apparent prostitute was walking the street, officers couldn't do much. To make an arrest, they had to witness a crime — such as a drug deal or exchange of money for sex. That's why so many prostitution arrests are made through undercover operations.

Now, if suspicious people are covered under the program rules, an officer simply needs to see them inside the zone.

According to police in Sarasota — which has had an exclusion zone since 1998 — it works well.

"Prostitutes know that just by standing there, they're going to be arrested," said Sarasota police Capt. Paul Sutton.

Teddy S. Green, 31, of Tampa was arrested Nov. 30 at N Nebraska and E 19th avenues. Police officers found him with cocaine and in violation of his felony prostitution conviction. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Bercaw said Green was one of the busiest sex workers in the area.

"As opposed to catching them in the act, we can remove them from the environment," he said.

Leon Burwell, 30, the first person arrested under the program last year, was well-known to officers in the area. Burwell was released but rearrested Jan. 19. Records show he was sentenced to 364 days in jail for violating his probation conditions and trespassing in the zone.

"We had five cases on him alone," said Cpl. Jay Reese, who works night patrol in the zone. "It's great because we're targeting the ones that specifically work in this area."

Tampa police announce new rule to fight prostitution 02/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 11:45pm]

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