City to cease using condoms as evidence in prostitution cases

Pub date October 7, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff
SectionPolitics Blog

The San Francisco Police Department announced today that they will stop using condoms as evidence in prostitution cases.

This will address the issue of police searching prostitution suspects for packaged condoms and wrappers. Under current city policy, police cannot confiscate condoms to be used as evidence. They can, however, photograph condoms. But recent reports form the Bay Area Reporter found that police sometimes broke the policy, and did confiscate condoms. 

The SFPD, the District Attorney, the office of the Public Defender, and the office of Sup. David Campos spoke with groups that work with sex workers in meetings that led to the new policy, which will be in place for a three to six month trial period.

Public defenders also agreed to not use lack of condoms as proof of innocence for people facing prostitution charges.

A July report from Human Rights Watch criticized San Francisco, along with New York, Washington, DC and Los Angeles, for using condoms as evidence. Local sex worker health clinic the St. James Infirmary has also implored the police department to stop the practice.

It discourages sex workers from carrying condoms, they say, exposing prostitutes and clients to sexually transmitted diseases

“Cops in four of the major cities that we documented in this report are stopping sex workers on the street and harassing them for carrying too many condoms, and threatening to arrest them,” said Megan McLemore, senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch, in an interview about the report. “And this is a problem because it’s making sex workers less willing to carry and use condoms while they’re working.”

The Human Rights Watch report emphasized that many sex workers, as well as women and transgender people, fear carrying more than one or two condoms with them in public.

“Transgender people have terrible problems with being profiled by the police, being arrested falsely for prostitution, and just being equated with sex work in the mind of many, many police officers,” said McLemore. 

The San Francisco Department of Public Health actually distributes condoms to sex workers as part of the fight against HIV/AIDS and other STDs—and police then photograph and even take them, to use against them in court.

In 1994, city departments agreed on a similar trial period to test the policy of not confiscating condoms. After the trial period, then-District Attorney Arlo Smith declared that condoms could no longer be confiscated for use as evidence.

This trial period could lead to a similar policy change, which would permanently ban the use of condoms, physical of photographed, as evidence in prostitution cases.