Critics: Sex industry stings waste time, tax dollars
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published August 8, 2004
TAMPA - Tampa police Officer Michael Kitts walked into the Gold Rush dance club and sat at the bar, dressed in street clothes so he looked like all the other men watching the women.
A scantily clad female dancer walked over and offered him a lap dance in the private VIP room, where they could "have some real fun," Kitts later testified. In the VIP room, the officer "brushed" her breast with the back of his hand after she invited him to touch her, he testified. Then she offered to perform a sex act for $150.
That 2002 prostitution sting was one of more than 20 conducted in an undercover investigation of the Gold Rush and three other Tampa clubs. It led to the arrests of dancers on misdemeanor prostitution charges and later, club managers on racketeering and prostitution-related charges.
The investigation took two years. It involved using nearly two dozen undercover officers to hang out in strip clubs. It took more than 800 hours of manpower and almost $23,000 in pay. Another $1,987 went for other costs, like getting into clubs and buying drinks.
Yet most of the dancers were released from jail shortly after their arrests and sentenced to probation, charged small fines or credited with time served. The state declined to pursue charges against several of the more than 20 dancers arrested.
In June, the case of the first club manager to go to trial ended in acquittal. The jury found former Pink Pony manager Dewayne Allen Levesque not guilty on all six counts.
And last week, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke tossed out a Hillsborough Sheriff's Office prostitution case, saying detectives and their informant violated the woman's rights because they didn't arrest her until after she started performing oral sex on the informant.
Critics say that's proof such sex investigations are a waste of law enforcement's time and taxpayers' money. Other skeptics say such stings shouldn't be conducted unless police set a policy for how far undercover officers can go with suspected prostitutes.
"It's a waste of resources," said Luke Lirot, a prominent lawyer for Tampa's adult entertainment industry. "It subjects everybody associated with this industry to the whim and caprice of these officers. They're making their own criteria as they go along as to what they may and may not do to hook somebody in."
The Tampa Police Department doesn't have a written policy on what physical contact undercover officers can have with prostitution suspects.
The result: While police administrators say officers know physical contact is prohibited, officers admitted during Levesque's trial that they touched dancers' bare breasts and in some cases had their groins touched by the women.
One detective, Dale Tuvell, testified during Levesque's trial that officers can touch a woman's pubic region, but "we don't penetrate."
Kitts, also testifying at Levesque's trial, admitted that he decided it was okay to touch the dancer's naked breast during the sting at Gold Rush.
"That was not something that was cleared through anyone else in the police department, was it?" asked Levesque's attorney, John Lauro.
"We never discussed it, no," replied Kitts.
John Skye, spokesman for the Hillsborough public defender's office, said officers and undercover informants need clear boundaries for physical contact with suspects. If not, agencies will invest resources in cases only to have them thrown out, like the case before Judge Behnke last week, he said.
"The argument is that cops possess cocaine and marijuana all the time in these drug stings, so aren't they committing a crime to make the case? Well, maybe so," Skye said. "But there is a difference between committing the crime of possessing cocaine and marijuana to make a case, and having sex with a woman."
Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue said last week he is considering whether to create a policy for officers' conduct during sex stings.
But he defended the two-year nightclub investigation and said he's confident the other club managers will be convicted.
"Yes, it's very time consuming because you have to get in, you have to become known, you have to spend money in there so people trust you," Hogue said. "But we have an obligation to make these cases that are affecting neighborhoods."
Tampa police Capt. Paul Driscoll, who works in the criminal intelligence bureau's adult entertainment unit, said the four clubs are still operating. But officers have revisited them in recent months and found the management has taken steps since the arrests to make sure illegal activity doesn't occur, such as making back rooms more visible from the front of the clubs.
Recently, police concluded a short-term undercover investigation of motels on Nebraska Avenue in Seminole Heights, where residents have long worked closely with police to fight prostitution. Hogue said resources were committed to the nightclubs as a response to complaints from people living nearby.
The Pink Pony club on W Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard sat next to a residential area, and citizens "complained bitterly" about what they suspected was happening inside, Hogue said.
"If that's manpower-intensive, well, then it is," Hogue said. "You have to attack these cases on multiple levels - not just arrest the prostitutes, but also the johns and the people who facilitate that by renting motel rooms or having these VIP rooms in clubs."
Lt. Rod Reder, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, would not disclose how much the agency spends for undercover prostitution investigations on the grounds that it would compromise future stings.
But he said agency officials are constantly asking: "How much time and resources should we spend on this?"
"Because a majority of these women have multiple prostitution convictions," Reder said, "but they're still not getting a lot of jail time."
St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman George Kajtsa said his agency invests resources based on citizen complaints, and during investigations, his officers focus more on johns than prostitutes. The city has three major areas where hookers are known to hang out waiting for johns, "and we work those hard," Kajtsa said.
"We have prostitution stings almost every night in those areas," he said.
He would not disclose the budget for such investigations and would not release the written policy for tactics on how to deal with prostitutes during stings, saying it would reveal too much about police techniques.
"The behavior allowed for officers is what is constitutional and what is allowed under state law," he said.
He did say female officers posing as prostitutes can't dress provocatively and must be wired, and "as soon as someone agrees on a price and an act, we make an arrest."
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office this budget year will spend more than $400,000 in the unit that investigates prostitution, gambling and areas including the enforcement of nudity ordinances, said agency spokesman Mac McMullen. The agency has a two-page policy on how to conduct undercover operations but does not specify how far deputies can go with prostitution suspects in sex investigations.
Driscoll, the Tampa police captain, said he doesn't think his agency needs a written policy.
"They know how far to take it," he said. "It's no different than a dope deal: Unless their life is in danger, they don't need to take part."
Testimony from Tuvell, a longtime Tampa police detective, suggests otherwise.
Attorney Lauro: Where is it written down in the Tampa police department rules and regulations that it's okay to touch the pubic region of a suspect?
Tuvell: It's been a standard that we have gone by. The girls, in order to make sure that you're not a policeman, will ask you to do certain things. Touch me here. Touch me there. Lauro: So what you're telling us is that police officers can touch a woman's breast? Tuvell: Yes.
Lauro: Touch a woman's pubic area?
Lauro: And they're being paid by the city of Tampa, correct?