SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has excused Salt Lake City's police chief from a lawsuit filed by escort services that argue a Utah law makes it too easy for undercover police to make prostitution arrests.
U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson said police Chief Chris Burbank wasn't a central figure in the dispute over whether the law goes too far. Utah's attorney general remains a defendant.
Utah law had defined solicitation as a person agreeing to have sex for money. But an amendment last year broadened it to include any person who performs acts such as exposing or touching themselves.
An attorney for the escort services argued last week that the law makes it a crime for a stripper to merely expose private parts during a dance.
"We're talking about a person who takes off her clothes for a living," said Andrew McCullough, who is representing Baby Dolls Escorts, Companions LLC and TT II. "My clients have a license for that."
McCullough said a female escort already has been arrested under the amended law, but the charge has been put on hold and the case sealed pending the outcome in federal court.
An undercover officer "tried everything he could for her to offer sex. She didn't, and he arrested her anyway under the new statute for touching herself in a certain way," McCullough said.
The woman accepted $200 to gratify herself in front of the officer in an unusual arrest, according to lawyers and the judge who have copies of the police report.
Burbank has defended the law, saying that prostitutes have learned to ask customers to expose themselves before offering sex for money as a way to determine whether the client is a police officer. Authorities are not allowed to expose themselves, Burbank said, but under the amended law, the escort or stripper can be arrested for just posing the question.
"Officers were being put in a position that we're not going to allow," Burbank said. "So we took a different direction."
McCullough said the law could also be used to charge a dancer at a strip club who makes suggestive movements, but Burbank has said he would use the law only against a prostitute when it becomes obvious that a sex-for-money deal is being arranged.
McCullough argued the language is too broad and unfairly entraps strippers and escorts who are performing legal services.
State lawyers argued that people can be charged for touching or fondling themselves only if they use those gestures as a sign they're willing to engage in sex for money.
Benson said he worried that the law left too much to a police officer's discretion. The judge said he would issue a written decision later on whether the law is constitutional.
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