Undercover stings to crack down on prostitution and public sex are snaring individuals engaged in consensual, legal activities and should be stopped. That’s the argument of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of South Carolina in a complaint letter on Aug. 16 to the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office and the state solicitor’s office.
The ACLU refers to several incidents in which undercover officers approached people parked in their cars, sitting on their own porches or walking down the street and asked suspects to engage in illegal sexual activity, including prostitution and having sex in a public place. The individuals either declined or offered to engage in lawful private sexual contact and were arrested.
“Consenting adults should not be arrested for acts that don’t break any laws,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “These sting operations enable officers to make as many arrests as possible, while they do nothing to stop actual criminal activity from occurring.”
Officers, the ACLU says, have repeatedly arrested individuals for being in places known to be frequented by prostitutes, for being “known prostitutes” or merely saying they’d “think about it” when officers approached them to solicit illegal activity. Officers have also arrested men who have sex with men even when the suspects clearly sought to engage in private, consensual, non-commercial sex instead of sex in a public location.
In one case, an undercover officer offered a woman a ride and tried to persuade her to accept money in exchange for sex. While she said she wouldn’t do “the prostitution thing,” they continued discussing a place where they could have sex, and the woman rubbed the inside of the officer’s thigh. She was arrested for sexual assault and battery and loitering to engage in prostitution. A similar incident occurred when a man was arrested for assault for touching a male officer who asked to engage in oral sex.
Undercover sting operations have been criticized by the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services as an ineffective way to deter street prostitution or public sex. Instead, the Department of Justice recommends other tools, such as the use of prominent warning signs or visible patrol units as more effective strategies that are less prone to abuse.