STREET SEX: Part 4 The Prosecution Rests … Or, Does It?

Is the crime of prostitution really prosecuted in Portland – or is it just “winked at”, and not pursued in court? You’ll get the straight answers right here …

When an individual is arrested for prostitution, either selling sex or being the customer, their first stop is here: the Justice Center in downtown Portland.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
So far in this series, we’ve documented how street-level prostitution affects the quality of life for those living and working along 82nd Avenue of Roses and NE Sandy Boulevard.

We’ve shown you how law enforcement has used the now-expired Prostitution-free Zone (PFZ) ordinance – and good, solid policing techniques – to mitigate the problem, by arresting as many street-sex customers and vendors as possible.

And, you’ve seen how, since the demise of the PFZ ordinance, business people and neighbors affected by prostitution have been told to organize and be vigilant against the crime, by reporting activity and organizing neighborhood watches.

Is prostitution really prosecuted?
As we gather news in the community, citizens have commented to us that it seems street-sex crimes aren’t vigorously prosecuted.

To find if that is true, we approach the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office, and are directed to two top-level deputy district attorneys who speak candidly about how prostitution cases go through the court system.

Gateway into the legal system
We first speak with Wayne Pearson, Senior Deputy District Attorney, Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. He’s a 35-year veteran of the DA’s office; our research shows he’s nationally-known for his contributions to community law studies and reports.

Pearson tells us that his section of the DA’s office handles incoming misdemeanor cases “not involving domestic violence”. These are cases involving charges of DWII, misdemeanor assault, resisting arrest, and – yes – prostitution.

We ask if cases involving prostitution are prosecuted with the same vigor as other cases.

“Our function is to prosecute the all cases that come into our office,” Pearson states. “All of them.”

Through the legal system
A prostitution case comes into their office after a police officer investigates a situation that appears to be involved in prostitution, makes an arrest, and writes a report.

The prostitution suspect is then booked into jail, and appears in court the following day.

Pearson says the police officers’ reports go to the District Attorney’s office for review.

If the facts of the case are, Pearson says, “beyond a reasonable doubt” that that the individual has committed prostitution or related crime, a formal complaint is filed with the court.

However, if the facts presented in the report fail to meet the “reasonable doubt” test, the case is returned to law enforcement, with appropriate instructions; usually a request for more – or more detailed – information.

People arrested for engaging in prostitution usually appear for arraignment at a courtroom located in the Justice Center.

First day in court
On the day the alleged prostitute makes the appearance in court, the defendant is served with a copy of the complaint, and arraigned.

“From here, the case can go in many different directions,” Pearson reports. “The defendant either pleads guilty and gets sentenced, or pleads not guilty and requests a trial.”

Frequently, when the defendant is charged with more than one offence, they plead guilty.

“The cases that go to trial are where the defense attorney feels there are solid, litigable issues,” Pearson says.

If the defendant pleads guilty, or is convicted in a trial, he or she is sentenced by the court.

Affected neighbors irked by “revolving door justice”
We tell Pearson that neighbors – especially those who live in areas with high rates of street prostitution – say they are frustrated about seeing the effects this kind of activity on their street.

“When the rule of law seems to have lost its meaning, I can see why they’d say they are frustrated,” responds Pearson. “Until a misdemeanor affects an individual, it probably doesn’t get a lot of thought by the average citizen.”

Pearson reminds us that, since the early 1970s, police have arrested both the prostitute and their customer. The DA’s office prosecutes the cases. Judges pass sentences. “A good question to consider is ‘why is prostitution still there, in those neighborhoods; ie, what facilitates the street side prostitution at a specific location?‘”

Many trials take place here, at the Multnomah County Courthouse.

Order in the court
To learn more about prostitution cases that go to trial, Pearson suggests we talk with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Chief Deputy in Charge of Misdemeanors, Fred Lenzser.

Sharing his experience prosecuting prostitution cases, Lenzser speaks candidly about cases that do go to trial court.

“First, most of the cases ‘plead out’ – that is, they plead guilty; the judge sentences the individual,” Lenzser says.

Appearance of innocence impedes prosecution
We ask, “What are the major impediments to successfully prosecuting a prostitution case in front of a jury?”

“Precursors to the act [of soliciting prostitution] may look innocent. The accused may be standing at the bus stop, walking up and down the street. It may look innocuous,” begins Lenzser.

“Using the information we have from the police reports, we have to recreate the scene for the jurors with the evidence we have. We have to get jury members to understand exactly what is happening.”

The reason for this, Lenzser tells us, is that of jurors may not be familiar with the street prostitution environment. “People tend to process situations based upon their own experiences. If they haven’t processed a concept, it is hard for them to believe.”

This is important, he says, especially when the accused tells the court they were just walking to a bar, waiting for a bus, or waving to a friend – a friend who stops on a busy street, rolls down their window, and talks with them before they hop in the car. “They can come up with semi plausible excuses,” he adds.

‘Sympathy factor’ helps johns
Another factor when prosecuting a case against customers of prostitution, comments Lenzser, “is the sympathy factor. “If the ‘john’ has a criminal record [especially for repeat prostitution offences], his background can’t be brought up at the hearing.

“The jury does hear how the ‘john’ holds a job, supports his family, has a great wife and goes to church. [This kind of testimony makes] it hard to believe that the individual was really doing what they were accused of doing. It’s like a Driving While Intoxicated case; most everyone has had a drink or two before driving. They give the drunk driver the benefit of a doubt.”

Prostitution: Illegal, or ‘between consenting adults’?
We ask Lenzser if jury members typically consider prostitution to be a crime.

“There are a lot of people who say, because the act is between consenting adults, they don’t see the act of prostitution as a real crime. If their minds are made up, they are excused as potential jurors,” explains Lenzser. “For those who are undecided, we ask the jurors to make decision on a particular case based on the law, not their opinion.”

Unless a person has been negatively affected by street-level prostitution, they may feel sympathy for the accused prostitute or john, officials say.

Successful at prosecutions
Quizzed about their conviction rate in prostitution cases, Lenzser reminds us that most cases don’t get tried; they are resolved by a plea.

“Cases go to trial because there are ‘tryable’ issues presented,” he adds. “We don’t keep statistics, but I’d say I’d say we win more than we lose.”

Conviction doesn’t always mean a harsh sentence
When an individual is convicted of prostitution at their trial, he or she isn’t immediately hauled off to jail – even though the prosecuting attorney may have presented a buttoned-down case, we learn.

“Sentencing is up to the judge,” Lenzser tells us. “And, the judges have a wide range of possible sentences they may hand down.”

One of the considerations is the number of jail beds available. “With jail-bed space limited, judges have to consider community safety priorities.”

A prostitute who has been arrested, or convicted, several times for selling sex, may get jail time.

But, street-sex customers, especially the ones arrested for the first time and who have no records, typically walk free, Lenzser notes. “Most ‘truly first time’ offenders are likely to get a fine, probation, or community service.”

Solving the prostitution problem
If juries tend to consider prostitution customers to be “sympathetic characters” and judges don’t  “throw the book” at them…if there isn’t room to lock up repeat offending prostitutes…how can the impact that sex sold on the streets be lessened, in affected neighborhoods?

Thus, the question that DA Pearson raises, ‘Why is prostitution still here?’ appears to be right on target.

In our next installment …
Our city’s officials claim that “enhanced treatment” is the solution to our city’s vice problems.

We’re digging to find out exactly what kind of treatment is being administered. Be sure to look for STREET SEX: Part 5 – Treating prostitution problems … or its symptoms?

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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