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Prostitution Sting Operations in Washington: What You Need to Know

Posted on August 17, 2018 in criminal defense, Sex Crimes

Prostitution stings are a common fixture in the American news cycle. News reports and articles detail the tactics used by the police to catch sex buyers, whose identities are readily shared to the public–especially if they are celebrities or well-known within the community. The public shaming is supposed to dissuade people from soliciting and engaging in prostitution, but there is no evidence that sting operations effectively reduce the demand for sex workers, or even impact the sex industry in a meaningful way.

If you are caught up in a prostitution sting in Tacoma or anywhere in Washington State, you need to take it seriously. Typically charged as a misdemeanor level offense, a Kent solicitation lawyer should be your first call.

Call The Law Offices of Morgan Fletcher Benfield, PLLC at (253) 518-3643 or submit a request online today and schedule a free and confidential consultation.

How Does Washington Law Define Prostitution and Soliciting?

Section 9A.88.030 of the Revised Code of Washington defines prostitution as engaging or agreeing to engage in sexual conduct with a person in exchange for a fee. Sexual conduct obviously includes intercourse, but it also refers to sexual contact, meaning any touching of the intimate parts for the purpose of gratifying the sexual desires of a person.

Solicitation is covered under section 9A.88.110 of the Revised Code of Washington, which applies to patronizing a prostitute. The offense covers a wide range of conduct, including:

  • Paying a fee as compensation for receiving a sexual favor pursuant to a prior agreement
  • Agreeing to pay such a fee with the understanding that sex will be provided
  • Soliciting or asking someone to engage in sexual conduct in exchange for a fee

There are also a variety of prostitution-related offenses prohibited under Washington law, such as permitting and promoting prostitution.

Does a Sexual Act Need to Occur for Charges to Apply?

Looking carefully at the statutory language, you will see that no sexual contact needs to occur for prostitution charges or solicitation charges to be leveled against you. Under RCW 9A.88.030, you can be guilty of prostitution for agreeing to engage in sex in exchange for money, which means no sex actually needs to happen. An agreement is enough. Similarly, you can be guilty of patronizing a prostitute under RCW 9A.88.110 for agreeing to pay a fee to a prostitute or asking someone to engage in sex for a fee. Thus, the fact that no sex occurred is never a defense to prostitution or solicitation charges.

What Are the Penalties for Soliciting or Engaging in Prostitution?

Both Prostitution and patronizing a prostitute are misdemeanors punishable by 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. If you get convicted or plead guilty to the offense, Washington law also requires you to pay a large fee that can reach $1,500 for a first offender. Your sentence will likely involve probation, community service, compulsory classes, supplying a DNA sample, and undergoing STD testing at your own expense.

Prostitution is also specifically prohibited by many municipal and county ordinances. In Seattle for example, patronizing a prostitute is called sexual exploitation. The penalties are the same, but the more sinister-sounding name has harsher collateral consequences for offenders–especially non-citizens, who may face immigration issues for committing a crime of moral turpitude.

How Do the Police Investigate Prostitution?

The police sometimes catch prostitutes and “Johns” in the act, but this is not their primary strategy for fighting prostitution. The authorities put considerable resources towards planning and executing complex sting operations–often involving several law enforcement agencies–with the goal of deceiving and catching prospective sex buyers. The rationale behind these stings is that by choking demand, the sex industry will diminish. But there are no hard numbers to prove this approach works.

In September 2017, the Bellevue Police and the King County Sheriff’s Office went so far as to open their own brothel in a condo. Over the course of a week, they made over one hundred arrests, as unsuspecting buyers showed up after answering online ads posted by the police. At the condo, the buyers were greeted by undercover officers who would make an arrest as soon as there was an oral agreement–or at least the implication–that money was going to be exchanged for sex.

When is a Sting Considered Entrapment?

Entrapment occurs when the police illegally persuade you to commit a criminal act. The line between entrapment and legal investigative techniques is crossed when the police do something that would cause an ordinary, reasonable person to commit a crime. Another way of putting it is that entrapment happens when you committed the crime only because the police caused you to.

With this in mind, it is clear that most prostitution sting operations steer clear of entrapment. This is because if you answer an online ad for prostitution, you have already formed the illegal intent to patronize a prostitute. The police, in this case, are facilitating, but not causing the criminal conduct. On the other hand, if a police officer disguised as a prostitute follows you down the street while you’re minding your own business, and you agree to pay for sex only after the officer repeatedly and aggressively propositions you, your case could potentially fall under the entrapment defense.

Can I Be Charged with Soliciting a Prostitute If I Never Meet Them in Person?

Looking closely at the language in Washington’s statute against patronizing a prostitute, there is no requirement that the police prove you actually met with a prostitute (or a police officer posing as a prostitute). The law simply requires that you either agree to pay a fee in exchange for sex or that you ask someone to perform sex in exchange for a fee. Thus, it is theoretically possible to face solicitation charges if you agree via message to pay for sex–even though you never meet with a prostitute face to face.

In practice, however, the police are unlikely to go through the effort of using your phone or internet connection to track down your address, obtain a warrant, and come to your home to make an arrest–all for a misdemeanor offense. When the police want to catch sex buyers, they set up an online ad, lay in wait, and catch the people that show up looking for sex. It would take significant resources to catch every person who replies to an online ad.

Charged with Solicitation or a Prostitution-Related Crime? Contact an Attorney ASAP.

If you get arrested for soliciting a prostitute, your finances, reputation, and personal life are on the line. In these scenarios, you owe it to yourself to give yourself the best chances possible of avoiding a conviction and the harsh consequences that it entails.

At The Law Offices of Morgan Fletcher Benfield, PLLC, we will advocate fiercely on your behalf to ensure that you obtain the best case outcome possible under the circumstances. To learn more, call (253) 518-3643 today or submit the details of the incident online to get your free and confidential consultation with a Tacoma solicitation lawyer.