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Lap dance ordinance challenged

The mood was peaceful as six judges heard more than 200 cases dealing with the Tampa ordinance.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000


TAMPA -- This time, the showdown over Tampa's lap dance ordinance was calm and controlled.

There were no cries of "Bull---!" and no eruptions of anger as there were a year ago when the lap dance ordinance became law during a raucous City Council meeting that drew so many people it was held at the Tampa Convention Center.

Friday's hearing was in a hushed courtroom, where strip club owners with ponytails and women in shiny leather red jackets and mini-skirts sat quietly for more than two hours of legal arguments.

Six Hillsborough county judges -- five men and one woman -- sat together to hear more than 200 cases at once involving men and women accused of violating Tampa's lap dance ordinance.

The six-judge panel, an extremely rare sight in local courts, convened to hear legal challenge to the lap dance ordinance at one time.

Normally, one judge presides over a defendant's case. But in these cases, no one was denying they engaged in a lap dance. All the defendants, though, were making the same challenges to the ordinance's validity.

Defense attorneys asked the judges to strike down the ordinance as overly broad, improperly adopted and a contradiction of state law. Some of the reasons were technical -- for example, the Mayor signed the ordinance before the clerk did -- and some were sweeping claims of freedom that invoked civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

"This simply does not pass constitutional muster," declared defense attorney Luke Lirot, who specializes in defending adult entertainment businesses.

The ordinance outlaws lap dancing, a practice pioneered in Tampa in which customers pay naked dancers to rub up against them to music. The ordinance prohibits customers from being within six feet of a person who is nude or who is engaging in sex acts.

"Merely being within six feet of another human being can result in someone going to jail," said attorney Bradley Shafer.

The ordinance would make it a crime for people to watch a play in which actors portray sexual scenes or appear nude, Shafer said. Or it could make it illegal for Shafer to sleep with his wife at a hotel while watching a porno film.

"You're laughing," Shafer said as several judges chuckled at his example, "but the constitutionality of this (ordinance) deals with this point."

Other lawyers argued that the ordinance, which carries a maximum $1,000 fine and six month in jail, is tougher than a similar state law. When state law and local ordinances clash, courts must side with the state, argued attorney Scott Boardman.

Judge James Dominguez stopped Boardman. What if judges sentenced the dancers to a less severe fine to conform with state law?

Boardman said the court couldn't change the lap dance ordinance for the City Council.

County Judge Elvin Martinez seemed to agree.

"I don't feel I have the right to rewrite the ordinance," Martinez said.

Assistant City Attorney Richard Fee argued that state law, which he said dealt with obscene movies and magazines, didn't stop cities from placing limits on nude dancing.

He also told the judges that they should not strike down the ordinance because Mayor Dick Greco happened to sign it before the city clerk.

The city requires only that an ordinance be signed by both the mayor and the clerk, but it doesn't say anything about who signs first, Fee said.

Fee also ridiculed the idea that the law would ban anything but lap dancing. None of the defendants had been arrested for watching theater or for sleeping with their spouse at a hotel, he said.

"That is a conjured-up fantasy," Fee said.

Until people stop sleeping in hotels, the court should not strike down a valid ordinance intended to prevent crime and disease, Fee said.

The six judges meet next week to decide whether to issue one ruling or several. They have not set a schedule for a decision.

- David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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