Freshman City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, an out gay Brooklyn Democrat, is leading the charge on battling condoms-as-evidence with his Brooklyn colleague Jumaane Williams.
The Access to Condoms Coalition received a friendly reception at a June 9 City Council hearing on a resolution supporting reform legislation in Albany. In the past, police seized condoms as evidence of prostitution, which inhibited both street workers and others, particularly young people of color, from carrying them.
In a May announcement, Police Commissioner William Bratton signaled some progress on the issue, ordering officers to stop seizing condoms, except in cases of felony sex trafficking cases. Even as they praised Bratton’s action, advocates said that such an exception creates problems by disincentivizing traffickers from providing condoms to prostitutes working for them. A measure pending in Albany would go beyond the new NYPD policy by eliminating the trafficking exception. It passed the Assembly last year, but has not advanced this year, probably due to an assessment that it will not move in the Senate, despite the support it has from the five-member Independent Democratic Conference that shares power with the Republicans.
District attorneys around the state — with some notable exceptions, including Nassau County’s Kathleen Rice — are looking to tweak the Albany measure by adding the Bratton exception, arguing that too broad a ban protects criminal enterprises. Refuting this argument was a major focus of the Public Safety Committee hearing, and anti-sex trafficking activists were on hand to help in that effort.
Lynly S. Egyes , an attorney at the Urban Justice Center and a member of the New York Anti-Trafficking Network, testified about a client she called Alison who, before escaping from traffickers, was given five condoms a day but expected to turn up to 25 tricks. Clearly, she would have no protection in some of those encounters.
A national anti-trafficking organization, the Freedom Network, also disputes the DAs’ position. Citing a Human Rights Watch study that “demonstrated how trafficking enforcement efforts targeted at brothels and massage parlors made business owners reluctant to keep condoms,” the group’s Florrie Burke, writing last year in the Huffington Post, argued that allowing condoms as evidence in “trafficking cases would be detrimental to the health of the people we are trying to help.”
AIDS advocacy groups, including the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, stated that the city’s most heavily policed neighborhoods are also those with the highest rates of HIV infection — and therefore the greatest need for the protection condoms provide.
Carlos Menchaca, an out gay freshman Council member from Brooklyn who is co-sponsoring the resolution, said using condoms as evidence in prostitution arrests targets marginalized groups like immigrants and LGBT youth. He argued for “a consistent message that condoms are safe for all to carry” and that the Albany legislation must not provide any “incentive for promoters and sex traffickers” to limit their workers’ access to condoms.
Menchaca’s co-sponsor and Brooklyn colleague, Jumaane D. William, said that the coalition he led to battle the widespread use of stop and frisk should support passage of the bill.