Thursday, February 12, 2004
Of stings and smut
Civil libertarians say recent court cases against smut show out-of-control cops
By Andrew Kiraly
Vegas just loves playing up its new naughty image--to a point, anyway. Two recent court cases seem to pit the forces of smut against the keepers of goodness and civility. On Friday, Justice of the Peace Nancy Oesterle ruled that a Clark County anti-prostitution ordinance is unconstitutional. And a battle in federal court, now in its second week, will decide whether Clark County can ban the dissemination of handbills and fliers on the Strip by outcall businesses, specifically outcall stripper businesses S.O.C. and Hillsboro Enterprises Inc.
But in both these matches pitting sin against civility, the action on the sidelines has been more interesting than the game itself. In the federal civil trial being heard by U.S. District Judge Lloyd George, last week's testimony by vice cops--meant to strengthen the link between outcall services and illegal prostitution--has blown up in their faces. Tales of police erasing videotaped sting operations, questionable detainment of suspected prostitutes and officers removing smut from the Strip themselves move critics to cry that Metro is out of control.
"If it was a case of individual cops handling it one way, that's one thing. But here, there seems to be a pattern. This isn't a few rogue cops," says Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. "It's systematic. This is sworn testimony from police officers that raises serious issues concerning prostitution arrests we've had over the years."
The actions came to light last Wednesday when two vice officers were called to testify in the case. Vice cop Scott Kavon said videotapes were often taped over and not secured as evidence--in a move to thwart defense attorneys. "They admitted that they often videotape these room stings, but that they don't turn over the tape and instead they tape over it," says attorney Dominic Gentile, representing the outcall services in the case. "It's a real issue of destruction of evidence."
"I was surprised. I had no idea they were destroying evidence," Lichtenstein says.
Vice detective Jerry Saldana also testified about an apparently common practice of detaining outcall dancers during sting operations--even if those dancers don't solicit prostitution and instead simply try to leave.
"He said it was a 'voluntary detainment,'" says Gentile, who got the information during cross-examination. "What the police are doing in these room stings is saying, 'We don't care if you did anything, we've decided you're a prostitute and we're going to arrest you. We think you would have done it if you didn't do something else.'" That "loitering for the purpose of prostitution" law was tossed out last week in Justice Court by Oesterle for being too broad and too vague. Gentile also says one of the vice cops was videotaped emptying Strip newsracks of adult publications. "It's not his job to censor lawful material," he says.
Sheriff Bill Young was out of town and couldn't be reached for comment. However, Undersheriff Douglas Gillespie said it's official policy not to comment on ongoing cases.
The effect of this testimony? Not only does it throw countless prior prostitution convictions into question, but paves the way for a class-action lawsuit against the county by anyone who feels they were wrongfully charged with soliciting prostitution, says Gentile. "Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if we see litigation from people who have been convicted in these room stings, who felt they didn't get a fair trial because the police withheld evidence," Gentile says. "This might open the floodgates. I'll say I've heard talk of a class-action lawsuit."
The federal case over whether Clark County's ordinance is unconstitutional continues this week, but the ACLU is already busy fact-finding on the troubling bit of bad cop behavior that's bubbled to the surface. "We've been in contact with the public defender's office and other attorneys to find out just how extensive this is," Lichtenstein. "I'd be curious to find out what other things are lurking in the background."
The clincher: The testimony was originally intended to bolster the connection between outcall services and illegal prostitution--and therefore weaken the case that smut fliers are protected speech.
"It's ironic that we've been saying all along, 'Let's talk about the ordinance, let's deal with that issue,' and the government is saying, 'No, let's put on this dog-and-pony show [linking outcall services with illegal prostitution],'" says Gentile. "The resulting revelations are just going to cause more problems."