Michigan police officers enjoy immunity from the state’s prostitution laws when they are investigating human trafficking. It’s a law that makes sense, for the most part.
But it is missing one important sentence, according to Bridgette Carr, clinical professor and director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan.
“No one thought to take the third step and say, ‘but that immunity doesn’t extend all the way to sexual penetration,'” Carr told MLive.
She has spent more than two years trying to find support for that in the Michigan Legislature. Finally, she has a Republican on board with her, Rep. Gary Glenn.
Michigan isn’t all that far behind the curve. Hawaii was the second-to-last state to eliminate this immunity exemption in 2014.
Rep. Glenn said he planned to introduce legislation in Lansing to make sure immunity stopped at penetration and called it a “no-brainer.”
But it wasn’t that easy to stop immunity at penetration in Hawaii.
A stormy legislative debate received national media attention when police strenuously objected to changing the immunity law for prostitution investigations.
The AP reported at the time that Hawaii police said they needed the immunity to go as far as penetration so that prostitutes weren’t able to “cop-check” by throwing themselves at suspected undercover officers and forcing them to either have sex or run and admit they were cops.
“The procedures and conduct of the undercover officers are regulated by department rules, which by nature have to be confidential,” Honolulu Police Maj. Jerry Inouye told the Hawaii House Judiciary Committee in 2014. “Because if prostitution suspects, pimps and other people are privy to that information, they’re going to know exactly how far the undercover officer can and cannot go.”
Derek Marsh, who worked with California police on how to investigate human trafficking cases, dismissed that argument.
“It doesn’t help your case, and at worst you further traumatize someone. And do you think he or she is going to trust a cop again?” asked Marsh.
Eventually, Hawaii police dropped their objections to the new law.
“I suppose that in retrospect the police probably feel somewhat embarrassed about this whole situation,” State Sen. Clayton Hee (D) told the Associated Press. “But, thankfully, the issue has been brought to light and the behavior has been addressed.”
Hee said legislators were also surprised to hear sex workers tell stories of being sexually abused by police posing as customers.
“The reason prostitution is illegal is because it’s sex for sale,” Hee told TIME. “So it’s baffling to me how they’re trying to make a connection between the sale of sex and penetration for penetration’s sake.”
That was Hawaii in 2014; perhaps this is not a problem in Michigan in 2017.
“We don’t have any instances where police have abused this, but it came to our attention,” Marc Jordan, Rep. Glenn’s chief of staff, said. “It should be an easy fix.”
That could be true, Carr told Vocativ, but then again, maybe not.
She pointed out that because police in Michigan have immunity, no one could bring a claim against them even if there was abuse.
“I know from talking to my own clients that people who say they are cops often abuse them — whether those individuals are actually cops, I don’t know,” said Carr, who has worked with human trafficking survivors.
Savannah Sly, president of the Sex Workers Outreach Project’s board of directors, told Vocativ that police officers are common on “bad date lists,” which are circulated among sex workers to warn about potentially dangerous clients.
Two studies by the Sex Workers’ Project of the Urban Justice Center in New York City showed up to 17 percent of the prostitutes interviewed said they had been sexually harassed and even raped by police.
A 2002 study found that 30 percent of exotic dancers and 24 percent of “street-based sex workers” reported they had been raped by a police officer.
Daniel Ken Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer, was convicted in December 2015 of sexual crimes involving 13 women, all of whom he assaulted under the pretense of running background checks on them.
An Oakland, Calif., teenager claimed last year that she had sex with more than two dozen police officers from several departments. Some of the sex acts happened while she was underage. And yes, the teenager said police officers sometimes paid her for sex.
“Any time that there are laws on the book that give extra power to the already powerful against the vulnerable,” Carr said, “we need to be really careful about that.”
However, Sly wondered if changing a law really does any good. After all, the immunity exemption for police investigating sex crimes did not include penetration in Oklahoma or California.
“The sex worker community feels that whether there is an official policy or not, that undercover police do have sexual contact with sex workers while investigating them,” Sly said. “I applaud these efforts, but I’m skeptical.”