Hawaii lawmakers to end prostitution exemption

Published On: Mar 21 2014 01:24:27 PM HST   Updated On: Mar 21 2014 10:42:28 PM HST

Hawaii lawmakers on Friday vowed to restore a line in a bill that would make it illegal for police to have sex with prostitutes.

Click here to watch Nana Ohkawa' story.

Currently in Hawaii, police working within the scope of duty are exempt from all prostitution laws.  A line in House Bill 1926 would have removed that exemption if officers have sex with prostitutes, but it was removed when Honolulu police told lawmakers that exemption was an important part of fighting crime.

Advocates and law enforcement experts found that argument implausible. The senate removed the exemption and then deferred the bill to be heard by the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee next Friday.

Members of the house are ok with the exemption, but it is a different story in the senate.

A steady stream of people testified Friday claiming police have no business being above the law whether it is sex with prostitutes or any other investigation.

"Would it be ok if a policeman did ecstasy to make sure it is the real stuff? I find this type of legislation to be really baffling and confusing," said advocate Katie Caldwell.

"Most recently I had a case where my client had sexual intercourse with three officers consecutively in one evening before she was arrested," said Attorney Myles Breiner.

Breiner testified saying you do not have to get as far as actual sex to have cause for an arrest. "

"[The] statute, the language has not changed. Crime is committed by verbal agreement. You don't need to engage in sex to commit the offense. It's ludicrous," Breiner added.

Committee Chairman Clayton Hee, a Democrat representing Kane'ohe and Ka'a'awa, said its next version would once again outlaw police from having sex with prostitutes.

"I will tell you that without question I can't imagine police officers being exempt from the law," he said. "To condone police officers' sexual penetration in making arrests is simply nonsensical to me.  And I would note that HPD's absence is deafening."

"You can expect that exemption will be out of the recommendations of the chair," said Hee.

Added Democratic Sen. Malama Solomon, who represents Hilo: "I find that appalling. I just can't understand how that can happen."

The promise from lawmakers to toss the exemption came as a relief to people who testified at the hearing.

Kathryn Xian, the founder of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, testified to the committee that the practice of "cop-checking" that police claimed makes the exemption necessary does not jive with the accounts of former prostitutes.

"I'm really glad Hee's making that policy call," said Xian, a Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii's first district. "It's long overdue. I think it will benefit a lot of victims out there."

"We know for sure that there are not many states at all that have this type of immunity, definitely within the human trafficking world. Everyone's shocked on a national level that Hawaii does all this immunity," said Xian added.

Honolulu police say their officers who investigate prostitution -- called morals officers, in the department -- have not been the subject of such complaints in recent memory.

Police testified in writing and in person to the House Judiciary Committee in February that keeping the exemption in statute protects undercover officers from being found out.  They said internal department protocols protect citizens against abuses.

The House committee amended the bill to restore the exemption.  The House later passed that version of the bill.

On Thursday, The Associated Press wrote about the successful lobbying of police to keep that exemption.  The Honolulu Police Department then issued a statement disputing that story's findings.  The release reads, in part, "The HPD has never asked the Legislature to allow officers to engage in sex with prostitutes."

Yet written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee dated Feb. 13 and signed by Chief of Police Louis Kealoha and Capt. Jason Kawabata of the Narcotics/Vice Division explicitly asks lawmakers to keep the legal protection for police to have sex with prostitutes.

"Even if the intent of the amendment (sic) is merely to limit actual conduct by the officer, we must oppose it," that letter reads. "Codifying the limitations on an officer's conduct would greatly assist pimps and prostitutes in their efforts to avoid prostitution."

Such exemptions for police to have sex with prostitutes appear rare in states' laws.  Michigan appears to have one.  Law enforcement experts say there's never any need to have sex with a prostitute to make an arrest, because the agreement to exchange money for sex is sufficient evidence of a crime.

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