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D.C.'s Prostitution-Free Zone Proposal May Be Unconstitutional

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Senior Counselor to the D.C. Attorney General Ariel Levinson-Waldman, left, and Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham, who testified before the D.C. Council Jan. 24, have significant concerns about the bill to create permanent prostitution-free zones in the District.
 
David Schultz
Senior Counselor to the D.C. Attorney General Ariel Levinson-Waldman, left, and Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham, who testified before the D.C. Council Jan. 24, have significant concerns about the bill to create permanent prostitution-free zones in the District.  

D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander is trying to beef up the city's anti-prostitution laws, but some local law enforcement officials say her efforts may be unconstitutional.

Police have been targeting prostitution in downtown areas by using temporary "prostitution-free zones," where anyone even suspected of engaging in the practice can be ordered to leave. But an analysis of D.C. crime data shows that this appears to have only pushed prostitution into outlying areas, such as Ward 7.

Jesse Holmes lives in Ward 7, and he says he's seen firsthand the impacts of illegal activity in his neighborhood.

"Children are exposed to lewd and unlawful acts," he says. "Businesses and churches are left with the task of sweeping condoms from their doorways."

Alexander represents Ward 7, and she's proposing to strengthen anti-prostition laws through a measure that would make the temporary zones permanent.  "We need to rid this ill from our community," she says. "And it wouldn't be accepted in any other ward in the city and it will not be accepted in my ward."

There's just one problem: the Supreme Court has ruled many times that a police officer has to prove someone is committing a crime before they can give that person an order.

Rick Rosendall, a local gay rights activist, says Alexander's bill has no chance of surviving a judge's scrutiny.

"It will almost certainly increase the opportunities for our good friends in the local chapter of the ACLU to challenge the constitutionality, which they will almost certainly win," he says. 

The office of the D.C. Attorney General has also expressed concerns about the law's constitutionality. The measure is now before the Council's Judiciary Committee, but no further action on it is on the calendar.

David Schultz is a graduate student at American University. WAMU is licensed to American.

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