Honolulu bill would seize cars to curb prostitution
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
In a bid to crack down on longtime problem areas for prostitution, the City Council is considering a bill that would target johns by impounding their cars.
The measure is modeled after laws passed in other municipalities, including Seattle, and has the support of several state legislators and community members who say people who pick up prostitutes need a bigger deterrent.
Last year, 276 prostitution arrests were made on O'ahu, a 30 percent decrease in arrests from 2008, police said.
But those numbers do little to illustrate the size of the sex industry in the Islands, especially in Waikīkī, the state's No. 1 tourism center.
Ronald Becker, director of the Criminal Justice and Criminology program at Chaminade University, expressed doubt the "multi-million-dollar industry" of prostitution would see much of a hit if the bill is passed because many tourists try to pick up prostitutes in taxis and rental cars, and those wouldn't be impounded under the measure.
"A good part of the consumer market (for prostitutes) is made up of tourists," he said, adding the bill also wouldn't likely affect prostitution going on in massage parlors and bars.
Honolulu police have opposed the bill, and say it would apply only to those who try to pick up police officers who are undercover posing as prostitutes because police "would need probable cause a crime is occurring," according to testimony to the City Council.
Police also raised concerns over where impounded cars would be stored.
Some 34 men were arrested in 2009 for trying to pick up a Honolulu police officer posing as a prostitute.
Police say the bill also comes as prostitution trends are changing, and more johns are picking up prostitutes after a meet-up on the Internet — not the street.
But Councilman Charles Djou, who introduced the council bill, said prostitution on the streets remains a problem in urban Honolulu, including in Waikīkī and Chinatown. And he said the problem won't go away until johns are targeted.
"I do think this is something that can work," Djou said.
Prostitution arrests last year were down from 2008, when there were 393 arrests.
It's unclear whether the decrease in prostitution arrests was because prostitution is actually on the decline.
Djou and residents say prostitution is still prevalent in several areas, and police point out many prostitutes and pimps are turning to the Internet, where they connect on social networking Web sites and are harder to track.
"Many networking Web sites are increasingly being used to trade sex for money," said HPD Maj. Susan Dowsett, who is commander of the Narcotics/Vice Division. "Prostitution is flourishing online ... creating more of an 'underground movement' than in previous years. The patterns of prostitution have changed."
A breakdown on the percentage of arrests for prostitution on the street compared with hook-ups on the Internet was not available. But Dowsett said that enforcement efforts still target prostitution on streets, and in bars and massage parlors.
An HPD team also monitors prostitution on Web sites.
HEARING NEXT MONTH
Frank Lavoie, chairman of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, said prostitution on the streets doesn't appear to be getting worse, but isn't getting better.
He said the council bill could serve as a big deterrent.
"It sounds like something we would definitely support," he said.
State lawmakers have introduced measures similar to the one before the council, but none has garnered enough support in recent years to go far in the legislative process.
Last year, state Rep. Karl Rhoads, D-28th (Pālama, Chinatown, Downtown), introduced a bill that would have also authorized seizing the vehicles of johns, but only after they'd been convicted.
The council prostitution bill is expected to be heard next month.
The measure would allow police officers to impound the car of someone attempting to pick up a prostitute as long as that person is the registered owner.
To pick up the car, the owner would have to pay a fee and towing charges.
The impound fee has not yet been set.
Under the bill, those fees would be returned if the person arrested was found not guilty. Impounded vehicles not picked up would be sold in a public auction.