Police officers in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County have been charging sex workers with possessing “instruments of a crime” if found with condoms in their possession, a first-degree misdemeanor charge that allows authorities to take suspects into custody and immediately process and fingerprint them under the auspices of halting human trafficking even if it discourages safe sex practices, according to a story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review earlier this month.
Out of 100 prostitution cases in Allegheny County last year, 15 cases resulted in instrument of a crime charges because the suspect possessed condoms, and in 14 separate cases, authorities seized condoms as evidence, reports the Tribune-Review.
Charging suspects with possessing an instrument of a crime in addition to prostitution, a third-degree misdemeanor, "can be helpful to investigators in these cases because many of these individuals in this industry are from out of the area," Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said. "If we simply release them and proceed by summons, we'll never see them again."
But some cities and states have barred authorities from considering condoms an instrument of a crime, a charge that is often used when suspects are found with cell phones or computers used to set up a sex in exchange for money.
In 2014, civil rights groups and AIDS activists advocating for safer sex helped get the practice of labeling condoms instruments of a crime blocked in New York City. That year in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring prosecutors to acquire permission from the court if they wanted to use the possession more than one condom as evidence in a case, notes the Tribune-Review.
But there are those in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, who stand by slapping an extra charge on a suspect if they think it will help crack down on sex trafficking, even if it discourages condom use to halt the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
“If any police agency investigating such a crime [as human trafficking] believes that the possibility of exploitation exists, and did not adequately investigate such matters, they would not be doing their job,” Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala told Jezebel in an email. “In this regard, the issue is not about the use of condoms, but about addressing human trafficking as a priority in our law enforcement community.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Women’s Law Project, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, and the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) have urged the district attorney to halt the harmful practice of criminalizing condoms.
Zappala, in his response to Jezebel, referred to SWOP as “a group that represents an industry that is illegal in Pennsylvania.”
“We in no way advocate for crime,” PJ Sage, who works for SWOP, told Jezebel. “We just don’t think anyone deserves to have HIV, STIs, or unwanted pregnancy.”