Escort services file lawsuit over sex solicitation law

Published: Thursday, May 19 2011 9:19 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Two Salt Lake escort services have filed suit in federal court, charging that a new law that makes it easier to arrest individuals for sexual solicitation is unconstitutional and should be struck down.

The law makes it harder for would-be prostitutes or their customers to make sure they're not dealing with undercover police officers.

The lawsuit was filed against Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. It asks for an injunction preventing the law's enforcement until the suit is resolved.

According to the court filing, which is on behalf of Companions LLC and Baby Dolls escort service, HB121 "is overbroad and is impermissibly vague." It singles out a lawful business for prosecution, violates a licensed escort's right to freedom of expression and association, and therefore is unconstitutional, the suit alleges.

But defenders of the law say it is needed to effectively fight prostitution, whose victims, they say, are often the prostitutes themselves.

Many prostitutes are forced or coerced into the sex trade, Burbank said. They are often among society's most vulnerable: underage girls and boys, undocumented immigrants, those addicted to drugs, and others.

"We're not just pursuing prostitution," the chief said.

Burbank says his department spends much time and resources trying to help those forced into the sex trade to get free from such a life. Burbank has been one of the law's main supporters.

The law makes it a crime to ask someone to expose themselves, touch inappropriately or perform a sexual act "with intent to engage in sexual activity for a fee."

The crux of the dispute rests on just how to determine that intent. The law uses the phrase, "under the totality of the existing circumstances," and Burbank says it only applies to those who want to make sure an undercover officer is not a cop.

But Andrew McCullough, the attorney representing the escort services, argues the law is unclear, and escorts are legally permitted to perform many of the acts prohibited by the law without any intent to commit prostitution.

The problem, he says, is that many undercover officers already operate with the bias that most escorts are prostitutes.

"Until two weeks ago (when the law went into effect) that was just an assumption," he said. "Now that assumption is part of the law."

Police often target escorts, setting appointments and skillfully using tactics to get the women to cross the line into illegal acts, McCullough alleges.

Burbank said his department does set appointments with escorts to investigate prostitution, but not willy-nilly just to see if they can catch someone.

"We don't have time to just randomly target any escort service we want," he said. Instead, officers act on tips that a particular service may be pushing minors and others into prostitution, according to the chief.

Email: lbrubaker@desnews.com

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