Buy drugs or prostitutes pay more

Drivers who try to solicit a prostitute or buy drugs from behind the wheel could have to pay $500 to get their cars back under an ordinance that on Thursday won the initial approval of the Tampa City Council.

Nearly a dozen civic leaders from neighborhoods in or near East Tampa, Seminole Heights and Ybor City urged the council to pass the ordinance. They described finding used syringes in their yards, picking up used condoms and rubber gloves in gutters and alleys and seeing prostitutes dropped off within 10 yards of children waiting at school bus stops.

“We have a serious problem in East Tampa when it comes to prostitution and drugs that are being funnelled through that area,” said Essie Sims Jr., chairman of the East Tampa Partnership, an association of 15 neighborhood groups. “We want to help clean up our community the best we can.”

The city passed a similar law in 1997, championed by then-City Council member and current Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

“I think it was probably the most effective tool we’ve ever had to deal with street-level prostitution,” Buckhorn said this week.

But similar ordinances from around Florida have faced seven years of legal challenges, with cases from South Florida going to the state Supreme Court twice. Along the way, the city repealed its original ordinance, which still faces legal challenges of its own, and has since rewritten parts of it to put it on more legally defensible ground.

The city currently impounds vehicles when their drivers are arrested for a prostitution offense, but they are released after the owner pays the towing and storage costs, which are typically less than $150.

Under the new ordinance, the owner also would have to pay $500 to have the car released. Owners who didn’t realize that a non-owner was going to use the vehicle to pick up a prostitute or buy drugs could pick it up without having to pay the $500. After that driver’s first arrest, however, owners would lose the ability to claim that they didn’t know that the driver might to use the car to for those crimes.

Council members approved the ordinance 6-1, with Council member Mary Mulhern voting no. She said that she sympathizes with neighborhoods, but the down economy means that many families only have one car, and an increasing number live out of their cars. That makes it a bad time to deprive the whole family the use of a car unless they have $500 because of the actions of one member, she said.

“I just don’t think we should be punishing individuals who have nothing to do with the crime,” she said.

But city officials and neighborhood representatives say the law is a useful tool that effectively targets the johns who are creating the demand for the prostitutes roaming their neighborhoods.

“We’ve got to send a message that this is not a victimless crime,” Buckhorn said. “The neighbors and the neighborhoods around these areas of high traffic prostitution are the victims in this.”

A final vote is schedule for 9:30 a.m. Dec.15.

St. Petersburg Times