SALT LAKE CITY— Three escort services are asking a federal judge to overturn a Utah law that makes it easier — too easy, they say — for undercover police to make prostitution arrests.
Utah law had defined solicitation as a person agreeing to have sex for money. But an amendment last year broadened it to include any person who performs acts such as exposing or touching themselves.
An attorney for the escort services says the law now makes it a crime for a stripper to merely expose private parts during a dance. Arguments in the case were set for Wednesday in federal court in Salt Lake City.
The law allows authorities make a prostitution arrest simply because a person acted sexy, said Andrew McCullough, who is representing Baby Dolls Escorts, Companions LLC and TT II.
McCullough said a female escort already has been arrested under the amended law, but the charge has been put on hold and the case sealed pending the outcome in federal court.
An undercover officer "tried everything he could for her to offer sex. She didn’t, and he arrested her anyway under the new statute for touching herself in a certain way," McCullough said.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has defended the law, saying that prostitutes have learned to ask customers to expose themselves before offering sex for money as a way to determine whether the client is a police officer. Authorities are not allowed to expose themselves, Burbank said, but under the amended law, the escort or stripper can be arrested for just posing the question.
"Officers were being put in a position that we’re not going to allow," Burbank said. "So we took a different direction."
The escort services are suing Burbank and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. McCullough said the amended law is "virtually identical" to one struck down in Utah in 1988 as unconstitutional.
He said the law could be used to charge a dancer at a strip club who makes suggestive movements, but Burbank has said he would use the law only against a prostitute when it becomes obvious that a sex-for-money deal is being arranged.
The federal court case comes down to intent, which the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said is only aimed at targeting prostitutes.
McCullough argued the language is too broad and unfairly entraps strippers and escorts who are performing legal services.