Tricks of the Trade

Loose laws have turned Denver into an easy place for hookers to do business, but the fun's about to end.

Another idea floated at the November parley, which South City Park activists have since seized upon, was that of enacting a city ordinance making it illegal for convicted prostitutes to walk on East Colfax. Similar "prostitution free zone" laws have been passed in recent years in Portland, Oregon; Orlando, Florida; and in Aurora. These ordinances have withstood court challenges arguing that it is unconstitutional for a city to ban a specific individual from a public place. The Aurora ordinance, drafted in 1993, has been credited with drastically reducing the number of prostitutes working on Colfax between Yosemite and Peoria streets.

"Since passing this measure, the number of prostitution arrests in Aurora has dropped from an average one a day to one or two a week," says Aurora city attorney George Zierk. "We credit our area restriction in large part for that decrease." (Another factor may be that the Aurora Sentinel publishes the mug shots of johns who are arrested during stings, something Corvelli has suggested to Denver newspapers without much luck, though Mayor Webb has endorsed the idea.)

One criticism of area restriction ordinances, however, is that they don't necessarily put a halt to street prostitution so much as shift it around.

John Johnston
Clean it up: Pamela Corvelli takes a broom to prostitution on Colfax.
John Johnston
Clean it up: Pamela Corvelli takes a broom to prostitution on Colfax.

"We recognize that this might just make them go somewhere else, but from our perspective, at least they'd be out of our neighborhood and out of their comfort zone," says Corvelli. "We just want something to happen, and we've learned that in dealing with government, it helps if you have one thing you want to push, so that when you're asked, 'Okay, but what do you want us to do about it?' You can say, 'This.'"

And Corvelli has been pushing. In January she met with Mayor Webb, and earlier this month she put together packets containing another round of complaint letters, plus a petition with 36 pages of signatures, "front and back," in support of the proposed ordinance. The packets were sent to the mayor, city council members, police officials, county judges and the city attorney's office, where the ordinance was already well on its way to being approved.

"We've completed an analysis of legality and whether we could defend [the area restriction] if it was challenged, and we have concluded that it is defensible," says Jim Thomas, manager of the city attorney's prosecution group. "The element we're looking at now is exactly how we're going to enforce it. That's the piece that still needs to fall into place before we move forward."

Last Monday, DPD vice-unit supervisor Sergeant Mark Fleecs and several of his senior officers met with Thomas to begin to formulate an enforcement strategy. "The key here is we're going to be able to involve uniformed officers in prostitution enforcement for a change," says Sergeant Fleecs. "Due to the nature of the crime, prostitution investigations usually require an undercover operation," which is costly and requires a large investment of manpower. Once an area restriction is in effect, Fleecs says, uniformed officers on routine patrol who see a woman on Colfax they suspect of engaging in prostitution activity can stop to question her, run her name, and arrest her if it turns out she is a convicted prostitute on probation. As for when he expects the city to approve the area restriction measure, Fleecs says, "As soon as possible, I hope. We're coming up on prime time."

Other cities with prostitution free zone laws, including Aurora, impose the area restriction as a condition of bail as well as probation. This means that in those cities, a person who is arrested for prostitution, pleads not guilty and is out on bail awaiting trial is banned from the same city-defined "high prostitution area" as convicted prostitutes.

"We've closely looked at that issue, but we're reluctant to make [the area restriction] a condition of bond because of the presumption of innocence," says Thomas.

What it all boils down to is this: Once the new Denver ordinance takes effect, any individual who pleads guilty to, or is convicted by a jury of, a prostitution charge will be prohibited from being on East Colfax Avenue. If they're caught on Colfax, it would constitute a violation of their probation, which could send them to jail.

Except, of course, that there's no room in the city jail for prostitutes. Corvelli, who confesses she voted against the city's proposal to build a new jail last year, says, "That's not a viable excuse. We feel the city could rent space in a state or county facility that does have room. Also, we feel that in the beginning, there will be a large influx that needs jail space, but then, as word of the area restriction spreads, the prostitutes won't be here. They'll leave, because Denver will lose its reputation as a prostitution-friendly town."

The lack of jail space might also be rendered a moot point by the passage of a harsh "three strikes" state law like the one in Texas, which incarcerates repeat offenders in state prisons rather than local jails. Corvelli says the idea received a cold reception in the State Capitol, whose gold dome on a recent sunny afternoon shone down on half-a-dozen prostitutes working the western edge of the Cold Facts track.

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