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Friday, November 6, 2009

RI gov signs bill banning indoor prostitution

By Ray Henry Associated Press Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Police could start targeting some of the more than 30 suspected brothels operating across Rhode Island after Gov. Don Carcieri signed legislation Tuesday banning indoor prostitution in the only state where it was legal besides parts of Nevada.

The new law, which took effect immediately, makes prostitution a misdemeanor crime regardless of where it occurs. Prostitutes will face up to six months in prison for a first offense, while customers and prostitutes convicted of a subsequent offense could be punished by a maximum one-year sentence.

State officials hope the new law will help drive the brothels out of business, either because they voluntarily shut down or are targeted by police.

"This legislation will give law enforcement officials the tools that they need to curb prostitution in our state, make our communities safer," Carcieri said before signing the bills at a Statehouse ceremony.

It's unclear how quickly police will try using the new law to thwart a sex industry built off a decades-old legislative mishap.

State lawmakers inadvertently opened the loophole in 1980 when they passed legislation trying to crack down on prostitutes and their customers creating havoc in the West End of Providence. They adopted a law targeting those who sold sex in public, but it was silent on indoor prostitution. Judges would later rule the change had the effect of legalizing paid sex in private.

That legal gap allowed dozens of suspected brothels to operate in the state's cities and suburbs, including many thinly disguised as Asian spas advertising services such as body rubs and table showers in a weekly newspaper. Until recently, police had struggled to prosecute those involved in the trade.

In 2003, a state judge dismissed charges against prostitutes working just blocks from City Hall. Their lawyer admitted the women offered sex for cash, but he said it didn't matter because indoor prostitution was legal.

Few police departments said they were ready to launch mass raids against the spas, but Pawtucket police Maj. Arthur Martins said his department will investigate at least four suspected brothels operating in his city. School children cross in front of one of them on their way to class.

"It's no secret what's occurring inside these spas," he said.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch said some brothel owners may simply close or stop offering sex instead of risking arrest. Police could enforce the law by sending undercover detectives into suspected brothels, he said.

Critics of the legislation have argued it may penalize destitute or drug-addicted women, including some who may be victims of human trafficking. The new law allows accused prostitutes to be acquitted if they claim they were threatened with violence, had their immigration paperwork stolen or were held against their will.

While individual prostitutes may be arrested and prosecuted, Lynch said his office was primarily interested in targeting criminal ringleaders.

"The point is, we'll go from the person who is selling it, predominantly women. But our target overall is to shut it down," Lynch said. "And the best way to do that is to go after the owners, the pimps, or those that manage these types of operations."