HONOLULU - Hawaii lawmakers flabbergasted at the prospect of police being allowed to have sex with prostitutes promised Friday to make the practice illegal.
Senate Judicial Committee Chairman Clayton Hee said he planned to get rid of an exemption in the state's prostitution law that permits police to have sex as part of an investigation. His announcement at a committee hearing followed expressions of outrage after police had lobbied lawmakers to keep the exemption.
"I will tell you that without question I can't imagine police officers being exempt from the law," Hee said Friday. "To condone police officers' sexual penetration in making arrests is simply nonsensical to me."
State legislators have been working to revamp Hawaii's decades-old law against prostitution. They toughened penalties against pimps and those who use prostitutes, and they also originally proposed scrapping the sex exemption for officers on duty.
But Honolulu police told lawmakers last month that they needed the legal protection to catch lawbreakers in the act. Otherwise, they argued, prostitutes would insist on sex to identify undercover officers. The legislation was then amended to restore the protection and the revised proposal passed the House and is now before the Senate.
On Thursday, The Associated Press wrote about the successful lobbying of police to keep that exemption.
Advocates and law enforcement experts have said arrests can be made without ever crossing a line into sex. Honolulu police offered written and verbal testimony to the House Judiciary Committee last month but did not attend Friday's hearing.
Hee noted their lack of any testimony on Friday, calling their absence "deafening."
The committee deferred decision on the multifaceted crime bill by one week. Hee said its next version would once again outlaw police from having sex with prostitutes.
The promise from lawmakers to toss the exemption came as a relief to those who testified.
Kathryn Xian, the founder of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, told the committee that the practice of "cop-checking" that police claimed makes the exemption necessary doesn't jive with the accounts of former prostitutes.
"I'm really glad Hee's making that policy call," said Xian, a Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii's first district. "It's long overdue. I think it will benefit a lot of victims out there."
Myles Breiner, a former Honolulu prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney, testified that his clients who are prostitutes often complain to him that police have sex with them before making an arrest.
"My concern is public respect for the law," Breiner told lawmakers. "How do we expect people to follow the law when the police engage in criminal conduct?"
Honolulu police say their officers who investigate prostitution - called morals officers, in the department - have not been the subject of such complaints in recent memory.
Police testified in writing and in person to the House Judiciary Committee in February that keeping the exemption in statute protects undercover officers from being found out. They said internal department protocols protect citizens against abuses.
The House committee amended the bill to restore the exemption. The House later passed that version of the bill.
After the AP wrote on Thursday about the exemption, the Honolulu Police Department issued a statement disputing that story's findings. The release reads, in part, "the HPD has never asked the Legislature to allow officers to engage in sex with prostitutes."
Yet written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee dated Feb. 13 and signed by Chief of Police Louis Kealoha and Capt. Jason Kawabata of the Narcotics/Vice Division asks lawmakers to keep the legal protection for police to have sex with prostitutes.
"Even if the intent of the amendment (sic) is merely to limit actual conduct by the officer, we must oppose it," that letter reads. "Codifying the limitations on an officer's conduct would greatly assist pimps and prostitutes in their efforts to avoid prostitution."
Such exemptions for police to have sex with prostitutes appear rare in states' laws. Michigan appears to have one.
Law enforcement experts say there's never any need to have sex with a prostitute to make an arrest, because the agreement to exchange money for sex is sufficient evidence of a crime.