Sunday, Jan. 16, 2000 | 9:43 a.m.
Sun reporter Bill Gang contributed to this report.
The most powerful tool combatting prostitution in Las Vegas is proving to be a simple piece of paper -- the privileged work card.
But the wrangling between the American Civil Liberties Union and Metro Police over when authorities can take those work permits away from exotic dancers arrested for prostitution has led to sweeping policy changes that neither side originally intended.
Now Metro is forcing every prostitution case to court in an attempt to win a conviction on the charges and thus secure what officials consider the legal standing to deny the work card.
"It's just game playing," said Gary Peck, the executive director of the ACLU in Nevada. "We told them don't take the work cards, and they respond with this."
License-related work cards are issued by Metro after police background investigations for those seeking employment in careers such as exotic dance, locksmithing, security and child care.
Metro also issues gaming and nongaming work cards for people seeking jobs in other service industry jobs. Last fiscal year Metro issued 105,606 gaming and nongaming work cards and about 10,000 license-related work cards. Each new work card comes with a $35 fee, police said.
District Attorney Stewart Bell has declared that plea bargains will be denied for anyone arrested on prostitution charges. The suspects, whether they are streetwalker or dancers caught in the act at strip clubs, will have to plead guilty or go to trial.
While the ACLU denounced the no-plea stance of prosecutors and Metro, the Constitution does not grant someone the right to a plea bargain, just a day in court.
Peck claims the no-plea process creates potential litigation, a possible logjam in the justice system and a loss of work for legitimate dancers caught in prostitution stings. Cops see it as a simple matter of public safety and welfare.
"If they are convicted (of prostitution charges), they will most likely lose their work card," Metro Undersheriff Richard Winget said. "That's the heart of it.
"The whole idea is to keep adult entertainment legal and aboveboard," Winget added. "The nature of the work can facilitate connections that could lead to prostitution. If they are convicted of using that connection, then we'll remove that permission and they can get a job in some other business."
ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein said civil libertarians have always questioned the constitutionality of work cards. But he grew increasingly troubled when he learned convictions were not the sole reason Metro used to take or deny the cards.
"About six months ago Metro changed its policy and started to revoke work cards based solely on arrest," Lichtenstein said.
Attempts by the ACLU to negotiate with Metro about the work cards led to a Dec. 9 memo from Bell outlining the no-plea bargain policy aimed specifically at exotic dancers charged with prostitution. The two attorneys offices and Metro are still working out exactly how the no-plea process will work.
"It's about as discriminatory as a law can be," Peck said.
Bell has since said that the memo is applicable to all women arrested on prostitution charges, regardless of where they were working when they received cash for sex.
"We have a duty and responsibility to have a constitutionally protected industry, not employ convicted prostitutes," Bell said.
But going after work cards may not do much to solve the prostitution problems in the outcall entertainment business.
Metro Sgt. Vinny Cannito said police are not "strictly enforcing" work cards for outcall entertainers in the county because of an injunction from pending lawsuits.
The lawsuits, some of which were brought by outcall entertainment service owner Richard Soranno, challenge the constitutionality of work cards, by claiming exotic dance is a protected freedom of expression.
Sorrano suspects taking the work cards is more than just creative police work.
"This sounds more like politics to me," said Soranno. "I wouldn't hire someone (with a prostitution conviction) unless there was some unusual circumstance."
Metro made 3,013 prostitution arrests during the fiscal year ending June 30, compared to 2,346 the previous fiscal year.
That increase is evidence of stepped up vice unit operations including undercover stings in hotel bars, strip clubs and the outcall industry and simple street patrols.
The most current arrest figures available show 675 prostitution arrests from July to September. Metro would not detail how many of the arrests were made in adult clubs or outcall services.
"We spend a lot of time, effort and money investigating not just the street prostitutes, but also in the hotels, topless clubs" and out-call entertainer services, said Lt. Terry Davis of Metro's vice unit. "We can't take away work cards if they don't have a conviction and this goes hand in hand with what we're trying to do, so we just don't want (prosecutors) to deal them down so freely."
Davis said he believes the no-plea policy will also filter down to pimps who make money off the prostitute's scores.
Although the policy provides a new weapon in Metro's vice wars, it also mandates that detectives appear in court to testify -- a procedure likely to force longer work hours and increased overtime costs.
"Unfortunately, that's the way it's always been," Davis said. "It just takes dedication." Officers who work at night will be forced to report back to court for morning appearances, he said.
Justice of the Peace Doug Smith predicted the increased court appearances will also wreak havoc on judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
"The whole system is going to back up," Smith said. "Prostitution is bad, but we have cases of murder, rape and robbery that should take precedence."
Bell said he didn't expect his policy to have much effect on the court calendars, because he said the trials would take just 5 to 15 minutes.
But defense attorney Robert Langford said he expected the cases to stretch an hour or two because convictions on prostitution charges can carry a $1,000 fine and up to six months in prison for the guilty party.
"I can't say hello to a police officer in less than 15 minutes if I want," Langford said. "I'm going to make them earn their convictions."
Winget said he understands that trying all of the prostitution cases will put a strain on the prosecutors and detectives required to testify.
"We're put in a position where these cases impact licenses," Winget said. "If we're going into the arena of fairness and not take work cards without a conviction, we'll give them their day in court."
In the early 1980s Winget said men couldn't walk down the Strip without being approached by a prostitute.
"Going some years back, prostitution had gone rampant," Winget said. "There were groups of 40 or 50 prostitutes on a street corner so aggressive they would grab the arm of a man who was walking arm in arm with his wife."
Efforts begun by former Sheriff John Moran helped clean up the Strip, but forced prostitutes into more covert places such as adult businesses and outcall services.
But one local exotic dancer arrested for prostitution said she believes the current crackdown will force more prostitutes out of the clubs and into the more difficult-to-enforce outcall services.
Mitzi Lane spent Tuesday in court trying to reduce her original prostitution arrest to disorderly conduct. The lesser charge could help her inch forward in the bureaucratic process to win back her work card and allow her to go back to dancing in a strip club.
Lane, 25, said she is spending thousands of dollars on legal fees because she feels safer performing lap dances in a club and does not want to have to work for an outcall service, which sends her to a customer's hotel room.
"That poses a threat to my life," Lane said. "It's something that I don't want to have to do. I would rather stay safe in my club."
Lane claims she was arrested because her hustling for tips was misread by a vice officer as soliciting customers for a sex act. She thinks Metro's no-plea policy and the revocation of her work card violate innocent-until-proven-guilty guarantees.
" 'Do you want to have a good time?' does not mean 'Do you want to have sex?'," Lane said. "I have to work for tips and finding out what the men want me to do is important."
Many clubs and outcall services collect all the money charged for an exotic dance -- usually around $150, according to trial testimony in recent court cases. That practice forces entertainers to hustle for tips in order to make any money.
Lane may have a sympathetic ear in Deputy City Attorney John Redlein.
Redlein said Bell's Dec. 9 memo "doesn't affect our understanding of the way this should go."
"We need to deal with someone who's a ruthless hooker, like a ruthless hooker," Redlein said.
But, he said he believed exceptions should be made for "the housewife who had too much to drink and gets tripped up in conversation with a vice officer."
Having the discretion on some cases is the city's goal, but obviously one that runs counter to the district attorney's policy.
The ACLU, which first broached the work card issue in hope that Metro would change its policy, is left dumbfounded by how it changed and is willing to support any legal challenge.
"To me frankly, it sounds juvenile," Lichtenstein said. "By saying they won't negotiate with particular defendants is a way of avoiding situations where there's no admission of guilt."
Bell said he agreed with the ACLU's complaint that seizing work cards without due process is illegal. But, he added, the policy switch is intended to secure convictions that will allow Metro to revoke work cards.
Lichtenstein disagrees that a special no-plea policy is even necessary to deal with prostitutes who ply their trade at exotic clubs or through outcall services.
"(The policy states) it is a more important problem than the murder rate or the rates for forcible rape or child abuse or robbery," Lichtenstein said referring to the Dec. 9 memo. "Why the city, the county and the police had to get together to form a specific policy for strip clubs is beyond belief."
Peck said he thinks the root of the problem lies more with the city and county district attorney's offices, than with Metro.
"The city and county seem unwilling to say to Metro that what they're doing is unconstitutional," Peck said.
As prosecutors and police prepare their no-plea stance, lawsuits involving work cards for outcall entertainers continue to wind through the courts on the constitutional question of freedom of expression.
"No one disputes the right of expression, but certain things (like prostitution) haven't been recognized as a freedom," said Cannito, a sergeant in Metro's special investigations unit.
Metro said that even if a woman loses her work card allowing her to dance in a strip club, she could still get a work card for another job.
"They just can't get a work card to be a dancer or another privileged (work card)," said Lt. Tim Leveque of Metro's special investigation unit. "We're not saying they can't work, they just have to get a different job."