Dickerson law targets pimps involved in child prostitution

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OLYMPIA—With a stroke of her pen today, Gov. Chris Gregoire gave law enforcement officials in Washington long-sought tools to investigate and prosecute pimps involved in child prostitution.

The new law, proposed by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle), allows law enforcement officers to record conversations with only one party’s consent if there is probable cause to believe the suspect is involved in the commercial sexual exploitation of children. This authority is currently granted only for suspected drug crimes.

“This is about protecting children and convicting adults who sell children for sex,” said Dickerson. “This law is going to be the pimps’ worst nightmare when it takes effect August 1st.”

Child prostitution has been a major problem in Washington. A 2008 study done by Debra Boyer for the City of Seattle estimated that 300 to 500 children were victimized by child prostitution in the Seattle area, with victims often becoming involved at age 13 or 14.

In January, an Investigate West report on mushrooming child prostitution quoted Lt. Eric Sano of the Seattle Police Department as saying that Internet trafficking had driven the numbers even higher, to “more like 500 to 800 kids today.”

Under Dickerson’s House Bill 1874, investigators must gain approval from their agency’s chief law-enforcement officer or a designee before recording conversations with one-party consent. The investigator must also submit a written report for a judge to review.

In addition, the new law authorizes law enforcement to employ a minor in investigating certain sex offenses when the minor’s aid is limited to telephonic or electronic communication or when an investigation is authorized by one-party consent rules.

At a public hearing on Dickerson’s bill, witnesses said new approaches for combating child prostitution are needed because the victims are too afraid of their pimps to testify against them.

“These are children who are in the most despicable and desperate of circumstances,” said Don Pierce, a former police chief of Bellingham and current executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “We ask you to allow us to help them.”

“We don’t have the tools necessary to do an effective investigation,” said Pierce. “This is one of the tools that will help us.”

Dickerson was unmoved by arguments that her bill undermined the privacy rights of defendants in cases involving child prostitution.

“Our duty to protect children from being lured or coerced into a life of prostitution outweighs any expectation of privacy that a pimp has the gall to claim for himself,” said Dickerson.

The House voted 82-15 for Dickerson’s measure. The Senate passed it unanimously, 49-0.

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