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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Welcome To Inauguration Island, A Prostitution-Free Zone

You invite a couple of million of your closest friends to the biggest bash your town has ever thrown. You extend bar hours nearly till dawn. You import thousands of cops to keep the streets safe. You commandeer every bit of paved surface you can think of to accommodate innumerable buses packed with visitors.

And then you plaster the street lamp poles in a central part of the city with big red signs "WARNING" all that "This area has been declared a PROSTITUTION FREE ZONE."

What's wrong with this picture?

Now, maybe I'm not reading this the way your average tourist or Obama supporter would, but to me, this sign--one of a whole bunch D.C. police have posted between 4th and 5th streets NW from Eye to L streets--means that everywhere the signs aren't, prostitution is just fine and dandy.

The thing about the Prostitution Free Zone--the District's decision not to use hyphens on that baby raises the question whether the red-signed area is a kind of Vegas East y'all-have-fun-now invitation--is that it is a rather arcane legal ploy, being used without even a nod to how the general public might read the signs. (There's a photo of the sign over at DCist, which first reported on this latest bit of inauguration insanity yesterday.)

Ex-Mayor Tony Williams' administration came up with the idea three years ago as part of a crime bill that criminalized prostitution. The law was written so that the police chief could designate a special zone of town where prostitution would not be tolerated. That declaration would make it legal for cops to take away johns' cars. Prior to the zones policy, only the act of solicitation--offering to buy or sell sex--was criminal. Under the zone law, the act itself was now illegal. More to the point, the new law made it possible for police to tow and impound any car found outside a brothel, and it allowed the police to disperse people who gather for the purpose of engaging in sex for pay.

The city tried a similar tactic in the early 1990s, but a court tossed the D.C. law as unconstitutional.

Well, that's a battle for another day. This week, I'm thinking at least some of our million-plus houseguests might want to get themselves a souvenir of their visit to Washington, like a nice big red sign declaring the neighborhood free for prostitution, or something like that.

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