NYC Council Members Introduce a Comprehensive Resolution Concerning the Use of Condoms as Evidence

Earlier this month, when the New York Police Department announced that they would end its practice of treating condoms as 'evidence of prostitution' in some, but not all, cases, the Access to Condoms Coalition-- whose executive committee includes NSWP members Red Umbrella Project and Sex Workers Outreach Project – NYC-- stated that the new policy contained a loophole “big enough to drive a truck through.”

Despite the celebratory tone of many news reports following the announcement of the new NYPD policy -- some of which led with the sweeping claim that the NYPD would stop seizing condoms as evidence of prostitution-- the policy only bans the use of condoms as evidence in three out of 14 sex work-related offences in New York City.

Police commissioner Bratton’s announcement stated that the new NYPD policy barred confiscation of condoms as evidence for arrest for 'prostitution; prostitution in a school zone, and loitering for the purposes of prostitution'. However, in cases where trafficking or 'promoting prostitution' is suspected, police can still use the possession of condoms to justify an arrest and confiscate condoms. This is a policy that has the effect of harming, not helping, people in exploitative situations.

The Access to Condoms Coalition said in a statement:

“Continued use of condoms as evidence in these cases will have the unintended consequence of leaving victims of trafficking and young people without protection, creating a strong incentive for traffickers and exploiters to withhold or deny access to condoms to the people they control.”

On May 29th,at a City Council briefing, New York City Council Members Jumaane D. Williams and Carlos Menchaca, with the support of the Access to Condoms Coalition, introduced a resolution that builds on the new NYPD policy while calling for a far more comprehensive state legislation. The resolution calls for passage of state legislation (A. 2736 / S. 1379) that would prohibit the confiscation and citation of possession or presence of condoms as evidence of all prostitution-related offenses across New York State.

Emma Caterine, community organiser at the Red Umbrella Project testified at the briefing. Caterine and volunteers from the Red Umbrella Project have been observing the workings of the newly established New York State Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. She related a story about a case she recently saw, in which the District Attorney's office tried to use condoms as evidence of 'promoting prostitution' against a woman who was a straw owner of a massage parlor.

“Condoms are being used as evidence of promoting, soliciting, or trafficking for arrests and later being dropped to charges prostitution and loitering: this wastes the resources of the court processing innocent people who they will inevitably dismiss the charges of anyways.” Said Caterine.

“I recently saw a case involving a woman accused of trafficking that highlights this problem. The defendant, whom I’ll refer to as Ms. Zheng, was continually pressed by the District Attorney’s office to accept a plea that included a forfeiture of $8000 even after the evidence against Zheng was insufficient to prosecute her for trafficking and her charge was dropped to operating a massage parlor without a license and moved to the HTIC. Why did it get moved there? Because Zheng is what is referred to as a straw owner, a person who may even be trafficked themselves who is written as the owner of property to protect the person actually committing the trafficking. In Zheng’s case, condoms were used as evidence to make the case that she was a trafficker. Not receipts in her name, not proof that she made money from the massage parlor that she supposedly owned, but condoms. And even after it was moved to the HTIC the DA’s office continued to push for their original plea. Luckily the judge immediately saw through this paltry rubbish the DA’s office had the audacity to call evidence and gave the woman an adjournment for contemplation of dismissal the next week.”

Prior to the resolution being voted on, the coalition will have another hearing, potentially within the next two weeks before state session ends.

Both Williams and Menchacaaffirmed their commitment to the passage of the resolution in separate statements, with Menchaca making a particularly enlightening comment:

“All sex workers are vulnerable where prostitution is illegal,” he said in a statement that may be read as showing support for some form of decriminalization, “and should not have to face a heightened risk of infection and unplanned pregnancies because they are targeted for trying to reduce risk.”