Allegheny County Police are Arresting Sex Workers for Possessing Condoms

Pennsylvania law classifies possessing an instrument of crime as a misdemeanor.

“Instrument of crime” generally refers to carrying a concealed firearm or other weapon with the intention to employ said weapon for criminal purposes. It also applies to unlawful body armor.

In Pittsburgh, Allegheny County police have been arresting sex workers found to possess condoms by classifying the condoms as instruments of crime.

“This is an abuse of police power. There’s no question about it,” WLP Senior Staff Attorney Susan Frietsche recently told WESA-FM. “And it’s an abuse that’s being leveled at some of the most marginalized and powerless people in our society.”

Attorneys based in the Western Pennsylvania office of the Women’s Law Project have joined a coalition of advocates, led by the local chapter of Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) to fight this abuse.


“For decades now, we’ve really been making a concerted effort to encourage the most vulnerable and most marginal populations to practice safer sex,” PJ Sage of SWOP said. “And this is something, a public health goal, that we’ve had for some time now. It’s like a huge step backwards.”

First offense prostitution is a low level misdemeanor resulting in a summons arrest, meaning the accused remains free and reports to court at a later date. Possessing an instrument is a more serious misdemeanor that calls for immediate detention, fingerprinting and processing through a local jail.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review recently reported on a case of a woman being charged for having condoms in Allegheny County back in 2012. Advocates believe this practice targets low-income people, LGBTQ people, and people of color.

A Tribune investigation found that “police charged people with both prostitution and possessing an instrument of crime in 100 cases last year in Allegheny County. In 15 of the cases, condoms were an alleged instrument of crime. In 14 others, police seized condoms as evidence.”

Possessing condoms is evidence of following the recommendations of public health experts, who universally support using condoms to prevent unplanned pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

Stay tuned for updates.

The Women’s Law Project is a public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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