Late last week, the Legal Aid Society of New York filed a federal civil rights suit that seeks to repeal a 40-year old statute in the state’s penal code, which grants the police broad authority to arrest individuals for suspected prostitution. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the law is so broad that individuals can “be arrested while talking to two men on a corner; while talking to someone through a car window; while walking down the street with a bottle of Korbel; for going to your job selling sofas; if it happens that you have worked as a prostitute before; just for wearing something an officer decides is too provocative.”
Not surprisingly, in practice the law most adversely affects the black and Hispanic communities-and transgender women in particular. It has resulted in multiple wrongful arrests and civil rights violations; the Legal Aid Society has represented women who did nothing wrong except “wearing short dresses or high heels or tight pants and, in one bizarre instance, that well-known symbol of sexual seduction: a black pea coat.”
Why hasn’t the law already been repealed?
The statute, 240.37, emerged in the 1970s, when prostitution was more prevalent in New York City. Yet it has come to seem outdated, and indeed, similar laws in six other states have been struck down on grounds of unconstitutionality.
As upsetting as the statute itself is its uneven – and unfair – application. While women of color find themselves arrested at the drop of a hat (almost literally), the Times points out that “it is inconceivable that a woman in Chelsea would be stopped by the police on her way to Barry’s Bootcamp in cropped leggings and a sports bra.”
“Who am I supposed to be prostituting to?”
One transgender woman figures as a centerpiece in the Legal Aid Society’s case. A 38-year-old African-American, she was arrested last February in Bushwick. She was walking toward a bus stop. She lit a cigarette. A police van pulled up and an officer accused her of soliciting.
It was 6:30 in the morning and the streets were empty. “Who am I supposed to be prostituting to?” the woman asked. (She was wearing a tracksuit at the time.) “There is no one here!” Nevertheless the police took her into custody. She appeared in court five times before the charges were finally dropped.
The hope is that, with the repeal of statute 240.37, such arrests won’t occur in the first place.