Hillsborough County moves to close prostitution loophole

Published Feb. 5, 2015

TAMPA — Prostitutes in Hillsborough County have been taking the street out of streetwalker.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office says prostitutes are increasingly thwarting law enforcement by taking advantage of a loophole in the county's prostitution ordinance. They have figured out that they can avoid arrest by keeping the sex solicitation and hookup off the street or away from any public space, the Sheriff's Office says.

Prostitutes often only interact with clients, it says, online or behind closed hotel room doors.

At the Sheriff's Office request, Hillsborough commissioners on Wednesday directed staffers to close the loophole to allow the arrest of prostitutes even if the entire solicitation takes place off the street. A revised ordinance will be returned to the commission for a public hearing and final approval, perhaps later this month.

"We're challenged by the prostitutes' ever-changing tactics," sheriff's Maj. J.R. Burton told commissioners. "We are not looking to change (the ordinance) drastically. We're looking to enhance and simply close this loophole."

Under state law, it is illegal for someone to agree to perform a sex act in exchange for money, whether the encounter takes place on the street or online. The county ordinance is separate and does not require any sex-for-cash agreement.

Instead, the ordinances prohibits what it calls "precursor" acts typically used by prostitutes. But the ordinance only talks about acts done in public, not online or in non-public areas such as hotel rooms.

The heart of the ordinance involves a common ploy used by prostitutes to test whether a client is actually an undercover detective. Law enforcement officials say prostitutes will often demand that clients expose their sexual organs, knowing an officer or deputy is prohibited from doing so.

Anyone charged under the ordinance faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Hillsborough's ordinance is one of many by counties and cities across Florida. Tampa and St. Petersburg have similar ordinances, sheriff's general counsel Chris Brown said.

Brown said it will be important to craft any amendment of the ordinance very narrowly so that it does not appear to police sexual activity between consenting adults.

"We want to draft something that is not invasive of somebody's personal rights," Brown said. "It's definitely a challenge."

Tampa criminal defense lawyer Will Hanlon said ordinances that define prostitution without an exchange of cash pose constitutional questions. He said the county should not rely entirely on law enforcement in revising the ordinance.

"They might want to run this by the defense Bar," he said. It was not immediately clear if the county had plans to do so.

Contact William R. Levesque at (813) 226-3432. Follow @Times_Levesque.