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Dance club raids face legal test

Undercover busts at exotic dance clubs could end if a lawyer convinces a judge that dancers' arrests were illegal.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

One night in October, a group of men fanned out into five exotic dance clubs in west Pasco. They paid the cover charge, bought drinks and built a rapport with the dancers.

Then they paid the women for private dances. The women performed as they would for any customer.

Only these "customers" had badges -- and backups outside, ready to pounce. By night's end, 30 dancers faced misdemeanor lewd conduct charges.

Such undercover busts have long been a practice of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

But those raids could end if a defense attorney succeeds in convincing a judge that the October arrests of the dancers were illegal.

"It's all going to depend on the ruling," said Sheriff's Office lawyer Mike Randall.

Tampa lawyer Luke Lirot, who specializes in defending people who make their living in the adult entertainment industry, is asking a judge to throw out the lewdness charges against 22 dancers.

His grounds?

For an act to be considered lewd, the Florida Supreme Court said in a 1991 opinion, somebody must be offended. That somebody, Lirot argues, cannot be a police officer. There must be somebody else, Lirot said, an unsuspecting member of the public who does not want to be exposed to the act in question.

Two Florida trial judges agree. The judges, one from Broward County and the other from Hillsborough, have ruled that law enforcement officers, acting in an investigative capacity, do not constitute "unsuspecting members of the public." Therefore, the judges said, a police officer cannot qualify as an "offended person" for the purposes of a lewdness arrest.

The Hillsborough ruling was issued this month.

Those previous rulings, while not binding in Pasco, still carry weight because no Florida appellate court has taken up the issue, Lirot said. The rulings reflect a shifting legal landscape in Florida when it comes to prosecuting exotic dancers for their actions inside a private adult club, he said.

Lirot will argue his case at a hearing scheduled for April 9 in front of Pasco County Judge Marc Salton.

Prosecutors say they will defend the arrests of the dancers by arguing that the only way to regulate activity inside a strip club is to use undercover deputies as witnesses.

"Under (Lirot's) theory, you'd have to have somebody else there watching, a civilian who's going to be offended," said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis.

That's asking the impossible, Halkitis said.

First, police can't bring a civilian into a private club for the specific purpose of making that person a witness. That would make the witness an agent of the police.

And no patron who pays a cover charge and reads the warning sign on the door is going to be offended by what's going on inside, Halkitis said. Patrons of an exotic dance club do not qualify as unsuspecting members of the public.

"The only way to enforce the law is for the Sheriff's Office to keep doing what they're doing," Halkitis said.

The Sheriff's Office said the October raids -- at Lollipops, Calendar Girls and Players Club in Hudson; Club 54 and Sin-na-bar in New Port Richey -- were in response to residents' complaints and undercover surveillance.

Twenty-six members of the Sheriff's Office took part in the raids.

The Sheriff's Office said no women were arrested for lap dances with minimal contact. According to arrest reports, some women were arrested for simulating sex acts on customers and each other. Others exposed themselves for undercover officers, who placed money in the dancers' G-strings, reports said.

"They were breaking the law," said sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll. "We don't make the laws. We don't interpret the laws. We enforce the laws."

The women were charged under a Florida law that prohibits lewdness, defined as any obscene or indecent act. A conviction for lewdness, a second-degree misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail.

Lirot, best known locally for representing Tampa strip club kingpin Joe Redner, is not disputing the factual allegations made against the dancers.

But he said that if deputies maintain they were offended by the dancers' activities, the officers showed no sign of it inside the clubs.

"They were out there having a big night," Lirot said. "They were drinking alcoholic beverages. Some of them were basically grabbing the women."

Doll, the sheriff's spokesman, said undercover deputies have to mimic the behavior of regular customers to avoid suspicion.

The hearing next month could have broad implications for the future regulation of Pasco's exotic dance clubs, said Randall, the Sheriff's Office lawyer. Judge Salton's ruling on the motion to dismiss the charges against the dancers would generally be considered binding in all Pasco courtrooms, Randall said.

Said Doll, the sheriff's spokesman, "We'll just have to review how the court rules."

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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