Crashing the pajama party
Sacramento police officers disrupt a political fund-raiser supporting statewide decriminalization of prostitution
Criminal-defense attorney Laurance Smith insists that the recent party at a downtown hotel near the Capitol was a political affair, a fund-raiser. Nothing illegal was happening. Nothing illegal was going to happen. “It was just basically a cocktail party. Nothing risqué about it,” said Smith, the president of the host organization, Californians for Privacy. To hear him tell it, there were just 100 guests eating, drinking, dancing and talking with about 30 professional escorts in lingerie; the theme of the event, according to one escort, was “pajama party.”
But it didn’t look like a political event to law enforcement. Ten undercover detectives surrounded the area at about 6 p.m. on August 19, said Neil Schneider, a lieutenant with the Special Investigations Division. Schneider said the detectives watched as women in see-through clothes arrived and went inside to meet a lot of middle-aged white men who were all known to each other. It looked to him like a “private gentlemen’s club.”
It might seem unusual for a campaign mixer to feature lingerie models, but Californians for Privacy, or C4P, is an unusual organization. Founded by professional “providers,” the “hobbyists” who love them and the legal professionals who support them, C4P is working to decriminalize prostitution, as long as it’s between two consenting adults in a private place. C4P differs from some of its sister organizations in that it doesn’t advocate for the decriminalization of street prostitution. Street prostitution gets too mixed up with other crimes. Think sex with underage girls, drugs and pimps using coercion or violence.
According to Smith, C4P rented all the 30-plus rooms in a small hotel downtown and welcomed guests into the hotel’s central atrium. The women in their lingerie were introduced, C4P representatives made a pitch for decriminalization, and at around 11 p.m., about a dozen police officers descended in a group and started backing people against walls, asking to see identification and scaring guests out the door.
Smith was told that the officers were responding to a noise complaint, but a dozen officers struck him as a lot to devote to nonviolent crime in Sacramento these days.
“The officers behaved at all times as if they were disturbing an unlawful gathering on the public street,” said Smith in a claim he recently filed with the city. “The officers specifically and deliberately targeted females clad in lingerie as part of a lingerie show that took place immediately before the forced entry. Hispanic females in particular were targeted for unlawful and unwarranted interrogation.”
Smith says he was there “sort of as the control person, to keep things legal,” and in his legal opinion, the group’s civil rights were violated, specifically its right to free speech and its right to organize.
Altogether, 16 officers were at the hotel that night, according to Schneider, and six of them entered, questioning women who might be underage and looking for evidence of prostitution—law-enforcement officers had an anonymous tip long before anyone complained about the noise.
The officers “saw a lot of people running around in lingerie,” said police spokesman Terrell Marshall, but besides arresting one woman on previous prostitution warrants, “they did not find any other violations.”
The group was very savvy about the laws, said Schneider. It identified everyone as over or under 21, and it didn’t provide alcohol to the minors. Also, the police found no evidence of prostitution. “I was pleased that they were able to screen everyone. It was a well-run event.”
Smith claimed that the woman arrested, professionally known as “Angel,” was asked to report illegal activity, but there was nothing to report. In C4P’s claim, she is described as “carted off to jail as a consequence of her failure to falsely report unlawful activity. This individual was not allowed to change from the lingerie she was wearing into appropriate street attire before being removed. As intended, the individual was released from jail in the same attire several hours later. She suffered danger and humiliation as a result of being [made] to appear on the public street in lingerie.”
Marshall didn’t know what she’d been wearing but said that “that’s not how we work. Regardless of whether you report or not, if you’ve got a warrant, you’ve got to go.”
Though Schneider looked around and saw women barely clothed hanging around with men twice, if not three times, their age, Smith looked around and saw his campaign coffers dwindling as his guests quietly dissipated while the police hung around for between 20 minutes and an hour, depending on who’s telling the story. C4P’s complaint is based on the fact that the fund-raiser—which accepted donations for raffle prizes like free dances—was squelched by police presence, and C4P fears that fewer people will attend its future events. Therefore, the organization’s asking the city for $100,000 in damages, including lost campaign funds—quite a bump for an organization with less than $12,000 in its war chest.
More than $7,000 of the organization’s previously raised funds—it’s done a number of these mixers—recently paid for a poll of 400 Californians. David Binder Research found that once given background on issues related to prostitution, 52 percent of people polled supported the “repeal of all laws against privately conducted prostitution but left intact laws to outlaw public, street prostitution and increased penalties against trafficking in underage girls.”
Among its other campaign activities, C4P drafted a piece of pro-private-prostitution legislation currently in search of an author, and that’s what the campaign funds are for. The organization claims the goals are twofold: “Abolishing oppressive government interference with the private sexual behavior of consenting adults” and “responding to the newly emerging threats of human trafficking and child prostitution.”
Under the threat of prosecution, escorts and prostitutes don’t feel safe reporting crimes against them, said Smith, or against their children. He knows of women who’ve been raped or kidnapped or had their children threatened. He said C4P has tried to set up liaisons to safely report crimes against prostitutes to law enforcement, but so far, efforts have failed.
The proposed law, he knows, wouldn’t necessarily remove violent clients or coercive pimps from the prostitution equation. “There’s no panacea,” said Smith, “but at least people could come out and report rapes and kidnappings.” Smith also believes that decriminalizing private prostitution could shift significant resources toward fighting violent crime.
Though Marshall couldn’t estimate how much it costs to fight prostitution through its vice unit in Sacramento, “if you have a sergeant at $80,000,” he said, “and five officers at [$60,000] or $70,000 a year, you can estimate.” According to Schneider, local police have made 397 prostitution arrests in the last 12 months. That’s not counting the Sacramento County sheriff’s numbers.
There’s been significant political wrangling on the decriminalization of prostitution in recent years. San Francisco has an active pro-prostitution community; Nevada legalized prostitution in its brothels, as did much of Australia; and in Berkeley in 2004, 36.5 percent of voters supported a prostitution-decriminalization measure. In Sacramento, providers have created their own political body through C4P and their own online network through www.myredbook.com. The site hosts forums where men exchange information on providers, and others where women share information about their clients.
Because of sites like My Red Book and Craigslist, Marshall dubbed Internet prostitution “the biggest or fastest-growing profession.”
But there’s a fine line between what’s legal and what’s not. Escorts who dance, strip or touch themselves or one another are not doing anything illegal. “But no one’s interested in those services,” said Schneider, who sees “escort” as just another name for “prostitute.”
One escort who goes by the professional name “Marlowe” said that she won’t take a new client who doesn’t have at least two references available from other women. By relying on references, which she can get over the Internet, she decreases her chance of being hurt or caught up in law-enforcement operations. She says she’s met women who even accept work references, calling during business hours to confirm a client’s identity.
Marlowe was one of the providers at the C4P event in August.
“I wasn’t worried, mainly because I was not doing anything wrong. I had a drink in my hand, but I’m over 21. I have no warrants.”
Marlowe said that she often attends the C4P parties because the lingerie shows are a way for women to market themselves to new clients. “They get to meet you face to face,” she said. “That, and they’re just a lot of fun.”
Marlowe is currently a college student. She started marketing on My Red Book about a year ago after meeting other women in the business as an exotic dancer. “I don’t believe I should be prosecuted for my chosen profession,” she said. “I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with it.” She’s a member of C4P and a firm supporter of decriminalizing prostitution. If prostitution’s legalized, it can be regulated. If it’s just decriminalized, she can simply stop looking over her shoulder.
Regarding the August pajama party, Schneider says it comes down to one thing: whether Sacramento wants this kind of thing in its community. Smith and Marlowe think it comes down to something else: whether it’s worth the resources to fight prostitution rather than violent crime.
Nobody ever complains about what goes on behind closed doors anyway, said Smith. “Illegality drives the whole trade underground.”