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Men soliciting sex may lose licenses

Published Oct. 9, 2005

In the war against prostitution, St. Petersburg police have discovered a new weapon: revoking the driver's licenses of men convicted of soliciting prostitutes.

"That means riding a bus to work," said David Lindsay, one of the officers organizing the new program. "If you're a salesman or a plumber or a carpenter and your job depends on that motor vehicle, you probably have a real serious problem."

The latest tactic in an increasingly aggressive campaign to combat prostitution is likely to become as controversial as some of the Police Department's earlier efforts.

In one of those efforts, the names of people convicted of prostitution-related crimes will be broadcast on the city's cable television station.

Even before the show debuts, police officers say "johns," the term used by prostitutes for their customers, have become more cautious.

In case that does not work, police want the johns barred from their cars. It is a proposal likely to draw an equal amount of applause from neighborhood groups and criticism from criminal defense lawyers.

"First the prosecution of the wienie vendors, now the mandatory revocation of the driver's licenses of lonely souls," said criminal defense lawyer Robert Paver. "What next? Our society has always felt that the punishment ought to fit the crime. These people obviously lack perspective."

Already, police officials say, the cases of about 35 johns are pending as part of the latest experiment in what Mayor David Fischer has dubbed St. Petersburg's war on prostitution. Most of those men already have been convicted of the sex-related crimes.

Now, police are waiting for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to take action to revoke their licenses. The state law that would allow the revocation has been on the books for years, but police have avoided using it, Lindsay said.

"I was aware of the law," he said. "We just had not been using it. It's a law that's on the books for good purpose."

Traditionally, the revocation statute has been used in vehicular homicide cases or other serious traffic crimes, Paver said. He said he has never seen the law used against men convicted of soliciting for prostitution, a second-degree misdemeanor.

It is debatable how long the licenses can be revoked. Lindsay said the penalty could be permanent; Paver scoffed at that notion.

In far more serious cases, licenses are only revoked for a couple of years, he said.

"This has got nothing to do with keeping a drunk driver from killing other people," Paver said.

While it likely will take a number of cases to determine how the law will be enforced, police say some of their other efforts are paying off. The number of johns looking for prostitutes already is declining, they say.

Lindsay said he interviewed two prostitutes Tuesday who said their customers are becoming nervous.

"They said there was a visible fear with the johns they've seen," Lindsay said. In addition, he said, "We've had half a dozen people tell the (police) decoys about their fear of having their names published."