NYPD will arrest you for carrying condoms: the women/trans/genderqueer version of stop-and-frisk

NYC has a law prohibiting "loitering for the purposes of engaging in a prostitution offense" which lets cops arrest whomever they feel like, on the strength of their conviction that the person is probably a sex-worker, on the basis of flimsy circumstantial evidence like carrying a condom, talking to men, or wearing tight clothes. Like stop-and-frisk, it's part of a pattern of laws that assume that the police have infallible intuition about who the "bad guys" are and lets them use their discretion to harass and bust whomever they feel like. And like stop-and-frisk laws, the "condom" law shows that the much-vaunted cop intuition is really just bias, a dowsing rod that leads officers to poor women, genderqueer people, and trans people.

Like most laughably cruel tricks of the justice system, you probably wouldn't know that you could be arrested for carrying condoms until it happened to you. Monica Gonzalez is a nurse and a grandmother. In 2008, Officer Sean Spencer arrested her for prostitution while she was on the way to the ER with an asthma attack. The condom he found on her turned out to be imaginary. Gonzalez sued the city after the charges were dropped. But if the condom were real, why should she have even been arrested at all?

Arrest is always violent. The NYPD may or may not break your ribs, but the process of arrest in America is still a man tying your hands behind your back at gunpoint and locking you in a cage. Holding cells are shit-encrusted boxes, often too crowded to sit down. Police can leave you there for three days; long enough to lose your job. If this seems obvious, I say it because the polite middle classes trivialize arrest. They talk about "keeping people off the streets." They don't realize that the constant threat of arrest is traumatic, unless it happens to them or their kids.

Prostitution is only a misdemeanor in New York, but a conviction will knock you off food stamps and out of subsidized housing. While society feigns wanting sex workers to change their profession, it does everything it can to keep them where they are. Most prostitution defendants plea bargain. Too broke and scared to fight, men and women agree to charges that will follow them for life.

There are two types of prostitution arrests. For "prostitution," the officer has to witness you making an offer, but "loitering for the purposes of engaging in a prostitution offense" requires only circumstantial evidence. On the supporting depositions, officers answer a checklist. Were you standing in an area known for prostitution? According to Karina Claudio, a lead organizer at the community group Make the Road, these areas can be anywhere. Were you dressed provocatively? Did you speak to a guy? Were you standing next to someone who has been arrested for prostitution? Were you carrying condoms?

New York Cops Will Arrest You for Carrying Condoms | VICE United States (via Amanda Palmer)

(Image: Molly Crabapple)


  1. Large metropolitan areas have seen a strong decline in violent crime. It is not caused by high police headcount but the fact remains that they need to arrest large amounts of people to justify the budgets they consume each year. So don’t be surprised when all these cops keep broadening their scope of arrests, searches, seizures, and interrogations into the lawful segments of society under vague guises of homeland security and wars on other phantom menaces. So much for “probable cause”.

    1. In other words, police need to invent work for themselves to avoid layoffs. That’s why we see this “for the purposes of” crime, which of course the cop can’t know until after they stop someone.

  2. Allowing cops to arrest someone for prostitution on the basis of being “dressed provocatively” is nothing but a legalized version of the “she was asking for it” defense rapists use.

    Stories like this make me think I’ve fallen into a time warp and that it’s really 1913 1933 1973 1983 1993.

    1.  What’s the downside here? Sex workers die, Who cares? The problem solves itself. Sure, they might gum up the health care system, but that’s not a police problem. Is it?

      Not endorsing this view, just pointing out the implications of how some people think about all this. That’s what we are up against.

  3. Of course another downside of this reprehensible policy is that it discourages actual sex workers from using condoms. 

  4. Reminds me of this This American Life Episode

    Adrian Schoolcraft with the NYPD lays out the unofficial arrest and ticket quota system (highly illegal, and unethical), and the recordings he took of conversations he had with his superiors in the department.

    The story sounds really horrific.  The bad cops run the show and the good cops are so complacent in standing up to the bad cops, they might as well not be there.

    1.  “The bad cops run the show and the good cops are so complacent in standing up to the bad cops, they might as well not be there.”

      That pretty much makes them bad cops as well…

  5. Seems legit. Plus, cute little checklist. The officer can hold the card up to the suspect and immediately have suspicions confirmed. I love it, Now let’s do one for drug dealer, murderer and banker, please.

  6. Hmmm. I can’t edit my own post? Is that new?

    I think it’s simply fantastic the city police can arrest you for carrying ‘evidence’ the city gave you.

  7. make it legal already…  the endless “war on whatever…” simply promotes more police, which needs to be justified by more money, laws, arrests, etc…  a never-ending cycle that simply justifies budgetary spending for law enforcement and the judicial system…

    i had 4 “special massage,” parlors on my street in china.  the windows were sandblasted so that there was only a small “preview,” window at adult height.  i never witnessed anyone in the neighborhood having trouble with the establishments…  i mean, someone goes in, does the deal, walks out…  life goes on…

    create regulated establishments, tax ’em, test the workers for diseases, promote safe sex, get yer business done and go enjoy your life, and probably save a bazillion dollars in wasted taxpayer money towards law enforcement and the judicial system.

    seriously, are these the most pressing issues in our world today?  thousands and thousands of years of “civilization,” and we’re still dealing with this nonsense… 

    1. I don’t think the issue here is to promote or legalize prostitution.  It’s an entirely different issue that would require some thought about how to regulate it so it’s another discussion altogether. 

      I think the issue here is revealing how the police are conducting themselves as they stop and search women or transgendered folk on the basis of what they are wearing and whether they have condoms in their possession and using that to prosecute them of the crime of prostitution.  What we’re talking about is the steamrolling of “probable cause” standards to its lowest levels in order to effectuate an illegal search of a person and then using the most medieval legal arguments (possession of condoms) as “proof” and “evidence” to arrest and jail someone.

      Keep in mind that most impoverished people do NOT have the resources (an overworked public defender does not mean much) nor the time to mount a defense and carry it through a jury trial.  What will happen is that these folk will take a plea from the DA and suffer through some minimized yet still actual punishment (some incarceration and/or probation and/or work-release and an entry in their criminal record) in which they admit guilt (no contest means practically the same thing) and then try to move on with their lives after being so injured by the state.

      Police are finding that it is easier to arrest “normal poor people” than actual criminals.  They don’t fight you, they just bend over, take punishment and abuse, and allow you to meet quotas more quickly.  Predators seek out the weak, not the strong.

      If cops can bust women with such specious arguments, imagine what they do to young men carrying some cash (drug dealer!), people driving with tinted windows (hiding something! concealing contraband!), the disabled (terrorists trying to look innocent!), babies (probably filled with explosives! search them!), the elderly (their colostomy bag may be full of contraband! disconnect it at TSA checkpoints!), people with black hair (probably illegal immigrants! demand proof of citizenship anywhere in the USA!)

      The slippery slope won’t get tilted back flat when we’re all too busy to look up from our smartphones even as we become more aware of it because of our smartphones.

    2. Whatever your stance on legalising prostitution, I think Sweden has a pretty interesting concept – make it illegal to BUY sex, while selling is legal.
      This in theory means an end of harassment of the “victims” (since in many cases, prostitutes are indeed victims of poverty, often forced into the profession), both by the police and the customers. Instead you are going after the actual “bad” guys – the enablers.

      I mean, seriously, going after prostitutes is like arresting heroin addicts. It helps no one and just creates more problems. Oh wait…

        1. I would say the Swedish model is the exact opposite of what you say. In fact, it means that women can indeed determine their livelihoods — at least one story made the news a few years back when a prostitute registered her own company and paid taxes on her trade.

          How can being able to work as a prostitute without fear of prosecution mean that they can not determine their own livelihoods?

          The article makes many interesting points, but it is clearly an argument for full legalization. Which is what you also seem to advocate.
          I do not have a strong opinion for or against legalization, but, I do believe most people and mainly most governments are most definitely far from considering full legalization.

          So given the choice between criminalizing the victim, or criminalizing the customer, I think the choice is clear.

          A person who pays for sex with a prostitute is never the victim, no matter how you spin it – no one forces anyone to pay for sex. However many prostitues are indeed victims.

          The example made in the article, where a client was able to help a trafficking victim, and would in theory be unable to do so under Swedish laws, is laughable. Anonymous tip lines exist for this type of situation.

          Also, the idea that this type of law somehow drives away clients from prostitutes who really need them, is laughable. The only thing that drives away customers from street walking prostitutes in this country is 8 months of cold winter. Also, it became illegal to drive through the most popular prostitute street in Stockholm, making any car on that street extra suspicious — that probably had a bigger effect than the law itself.

          So while we wait for the world (still waiting since the 15th century?) to make things legal, this type of law might be helpful to those who are victims right NOW.

          As for exporting or importing anything to the baltics, I doubt that even full legalization would solve the problem of women from the baltic states being sold into the sex trade.

          Also note that I do not really have a good insight into how well the Swedish model works, or whether it in fact works as intended. I merely suggested that it is a better option than the US model of criminalizing the seller.

          1. How can being able to work as a prostitute without fear of prosecution mean that they can not determine their own livelihoods?

            Try running a grocery store if the police arrest everyone who tries to buy groceries.

          2. I’m not saying it’s a good way to make a living, but I don’t feel it’s as much a denial of rights to determine your livelihood as the alternative – actually being arrested for trying.

            If we are to draw a parallel – the police can in many countries arrest most “customers” of sites like thepiratebay or megaupload, yet those sites still attract quite a lot of said customers.

  8. There’s actually a bill before the New York State Assembly to get this changed (I think this is the third attempt to get such a bill through the assembly). The Sex Workers Project has more information about S1379/A2305: http://sexworkersproject.org/campaigns/2011/new-york-condom-bill/

  9. “sex worker advocacy groups are fighting against the use of condoms as evidence.”

    Is it fair to say they have a pecuniary interest in doing so? Like when we notice that a pharmacology manufacturer advocates for something that helps their business? 

    1. Even so, there’s a net positive effect on society if the police can be reigned in from abusing the public and arresting people on such thin evidence.

    2.  No – in fact, their fight will benefit the broader population rather than just them.  Women who are not sex workers who are arrested and charged with prostitution solely on the basis of appearance and condom possession will benefit. 

      So your argument about this special interest thing doesn’t hold water.  Special interests benefit only themselves to the detriment of the public good.  This benefits the public good (if you believe in a justice system that requires a protection of probable cause standards) and this group is expending their own resources to that end.

      1.  i disagree with your claim that special interest benefits only that group to the detriment of all, i think it benefits that group, benefit or detriment to everyone else is secondary and may be either one.

        1. Efforts to keep police actions within established US Constitutional 4th amendment rights of due process and probable cause in these search and seizure cases fall under the opposite of a “special interest” in this particular case.

          1.  again, a special interest can still be to the benefit of everyone. special interest just means a certain group has a vested interest in a certain ruling.
            for instance: i could want to have a stop and search practice on a certain road stopped because it’s delaying shipment of my products, it also happens that this stop and search practice is a huge human rights violation but that’s not why i want it stopped. however in this case my interest and the interest of everyone else are in line.
            in this case having this practice stopped would be in the interest of the prostitutes but it would also be in the interest of all, so in this case their interest and our interests are in line.

  10. As noted above, there is movement to get this law changed, and I hope it does–especially since the City actually GIVES OUT condoms at many, many bars and clubs, especially those in at-risk communities.

    I think about that law every time I go to a favorite watering hole of mine all the way over near Avenue C in the East Village.  There are TWO huge fishbowls full of NYC condoms, and safe-sex flyers aimed at just about everybody.  The clientelle is everything from daytime drinkers to rockers, sex workers getting a Prostitute’s Lunch between shifts (rum and coke and a smoke) to the occasional junkie.  BUT, I guess they pay the cops well, because even though there is usually at least one patrol car on the block, even the obviously-impaired (ie a stubling-down junkie) are not being targeted. 

    OTOH the cops are CONSTANTLY harassing transgendered/gay youth outside of a halfway house/shelter in Queens specifically designated for them.  Young, just coming out, and interested in sex?  TOO BAD, no condoms for you (said in a Soup Nazi voice).  Even in the middle of winter, when these kids were bundled head to toe in the thickest, least-revealing clothing that they owned, they were being accused of “soliciting” pretty much for being outside and happening to have condoms on them.

    Heck, I am an Eternal Optimist and usually have a few Bloomberg Raincoats in my Timbuk2 bag, and I think the same can be said for any sexually-active (and the hopeful) in NYC.

    The NYPD as well as every other City agency is famous for selective enforcement of laws.  Don’t get me started on how the Health Department shut down my favorite new ramen place for a weekend because the naive Japanese owner (new in town) didn’t know he was being shaken down for a free meal.

    1.  Just a thought, but if the City is giving away condoms and then the cops bust people citing those same condoms as evidence, isn’t that entrapment?

  11. this sounds like it should be coming out of the middle east, women arrested for dressing provocatively and talking to men? come on. should they be wearing head to toe burqas and only going out when in the company of another man and never speaking?

  12. Not trying to be dense — and maybe I’m missing something — but I don’t see how this applies specifically to “women/trans/generqueer” people. In NYC I assume you have male prostitution too, so couldn’t this be used against anyone of any persuasion?

    1. Yes, but who gets profiled for this? who gets harassed for this? who gets arrested for this? In DC, three womyn got shot for refusing to service a cop, that was in 2011, when’s the last time a man got shot for that?

    2. It could be used against them – but that would rapidly burn up its usefulness, so it’s not.

      That’s the point of laws so over-broad they technically criminalized almost everyone: they apply to whoever the cops want them to apply to, as long as those people are weak.

      If they targeted the strong – people with the resources to hire competent lawyers, the support to fight the case all the way to the top, and the eloquence and middle-class+ appearance to look like innocent victims on the nightly news – then the laws would rapidly be overturned, and couldn’t be used to target the weak anymore.

  13. I am glad that I live in a civilised country which has legalised prostitution. In my country sex workers who are attacked can approach the Police without fear of being arrested for prostitution.  Sex workers have employment rights, and employers have Occupational Safety and Health obligations. 

    This doesn’t mean that prositution is without its very vocal detractors.  There is still debate about where a brothel should or should not operate, and the challenges of street workers in otherwise quiet residential areas.  But I’d sure as hell rather live in my country than yours.

  14. Eighty percent of NYC high school grads are in need of remedial coursework.  And the bed bug problem is getting worse, not better.

    But rejoice, New Yorkers! You are safe from condom-carrying women and 32 ounce sodas.   

  15. I could be wrong here, but I always thought to loiter was to linger without purpose. Yet “loitering for the purposes of engaging in a prostitution offense” would imply ‘lingering without a purpose for the purpose of…..”
    Even the basic idea of this law is ridiculous. 

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