A bill that awaits Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature aims to make it easier for local prosecutors to go after people who solicit sex online, no matter where they access the internet.
Web-based prostitution and its connections among pimps, prostitutes and patrons challenges law enforcement to stop crimes committed in multiple jurisdictions at once.
House Bill 1184 would change the law to say defendants have committed the misdemeanor crime of patronizing a prostitute in the place where they made contact and where the contact was received.
The measure passed the Legislature without opposition.
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State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the bill’s main sponsor, said the change was needed to solve disputes of jurisdiction when johns take to the internet seek prostitutes around the state.
She said Kent police brought the problem to her attention.
Kent police Cmdr. Jarod Kasner said his department has worked with other law enforcement agencies and the FBI to find ways to combat internet- and social media-based prostitution. Posing as prostitutes in online ads is a common practice of police departments, he said.
He said it is much easier to prosecute cases where the crime occurs in areas known for prostitution, rather than online. But arresting in these areas punishes prostitutes and their customers, which might not be the most effective way to fight prostitution, he said.
By contrast, Kasner said, the new law would put more pressure on people who go online looking to pay for sex.
“While the prostitute is committing a crime, they may be victim of another type of crime,” Kasner said. “Going after the johns is just as important, because they are typically driven by their own accord.”
Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said Pierce County might not face the same problems as municipal agencies because superior courts and county prosecutors have statewide jurisdiction.
For them, it is an issue of venue, Lindquist said, and as long as one element of the crime is committed in the county, prosecutors can file charges.
Pierce County worked with the Washington State Patrol in two stings in the past 18 months. In both stings, officers posted online ads and pretended to arrange for the responders from Pierce and neighboring counties to have sex with children.
“Given the growing prevalence of the internet and social media, our effort to protect children must extend to online crimes,” Lindquist said.
Associations representing criminal defense lawyers testified against an earlier version of the bill, voicing concern over the possibility of double jeopardy.
The bill later was changed to include a clause preventing defendants from being charged twice for the same crime.
Inslee is expected to sign the bill into law Friday (May 5).