Sex workers, anti-trafficking groups, the New York Civil Liberties Union, public health advocates, and LGBTQ organizations [including Make the Road New York] are today lobbying the lawmakers of New York state to pass a bill that would make the possession of condoms inadmissible as evidence in criminal prosecutions of prostitution and related offenses. They say that the police regularly target sex workers and arrest them if they are carrying condoms — even though condoms are legal. And they say that the fact that the city and state health departments distribute over 40 million free condoms annually, even as law enforcement routinely use them as evidence of prostitution, is hypocritical and non-sensical.
Public health officials agree that condom use is something to be encouraged, especially given that rates of H.I.V. transmission in New York state are rising. Currently, H.I.V. is the third leading cause of death among New York City residents aged 35-54. But if a sex worker knows that possession of condoms may prove to be the difference between a nasty encounter with law enforcement and a nasty encounter with law enforcement that ends in arrest and prosecution, sex workers are likely to be fearful of carrying and using condoms. As we’ve written here before, the impacts of this policy on sex workers (and women who are mistakenly profiled by the police as sex workers) can be devastating. Sex workers also report that police confiscate their condoms during searches. (“No, these are for healthy people; hope you get killed tonight,” an officer allegedly told a 56-year-old sex worker in Brooklyn.) The policy effectively discourages condom usage by sex workers, and that puts them (and their sex partners, and their sex partners’ sex partners, and…you see how this works?) at risk.
The bill under consideration, which would prohibit condoms from being used as evidence of prostitution at criminal trials, was introduced by Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Assembly Member Barbara Clark. It is currently in committee. Previous attempts to pass similar bills have all failed.
Anti-trafficking groups say that condoms are not particularly useful as trial evidence, anyway — and one District Attorney agrees. Kathleen Rice, the D.A. for Nassau County on Long Island, earlier this year instructed her assistant district attorneys to no longer present condoms as evidence in prostitution-related cases. Rice says condoms offer only “limited courtroom gain” as evidence and given “the seismic public health impact” of discouraging condom use, her office will make its cases without them.
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