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Should Cops in Prostitution Stings Be Able to Go All the Way?

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.