A Victory of Sorts: Allegheny County Police Will Stop Criminalizing Condoms

We recently told you that Allegheny County police were abusing their authority when making prostitution arrests by adding on a “possession of instruments of crime” charge if the alleged sex worker possessed condoms.

Criminalizing condoms defies public health recommendations to use condoms to prevent unplanned pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

In practice, criminalizing condoms provided police leverage to coerce the accused person into pleading guilty to prostitution charges, a lesser charge. The threat of being arrested for possession of condoms forced sex workers to choose between risking transmitting an infection and arrest.

Advocates argued this practice targets low-income people, LGBTQ people, and people of color.

The Women’s Law Project joined a coalition of 17 organizations led by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) of Pittsburgh in organizing an advocacy response that included sending an open letter to District Attorney of Allegheny County Stephen A. Zappala, Jr.

After initially receiving a disappointing response from the District Attorney, Allegheny County police superintendent Coleman McDonough confirmed the Allegheny County police will no longer bring possession-of-instruments-of-crime charges for condom possession in prostitution-related cases, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

From the latest report in the Tribune:

“I understand that public health concerns, at times, they line up with criminal justice concerns, but sometimes they are at odds, and we have to make a decision,” police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said. “Looking at it and taking all the public health concerns into consideration, too, we will not charge possession of an instrument of crime for condoms.”

The Trib analysis showed police charged people with both prostitution and possessing an instrument of crime in 100 cases last year in Allegheny County. In 15 of those cases, condoms were the alleged instrument of crime. In 14 others, police seized condoms as evidence.

McDonough noted that “no one has ever gone to jail for possession of an instrument of crime for (only) condoms,” noting that the charge for condoms was coupled with prostitution charges and, more often than not, a charge of possession of an instrument of crime for cellphones.

He indicated that police can still file possession charges based on cellphones, which are often categorized as instruments of crime in criminal complaints when they are used by sex workers to set up appointments with clients.

Significantly, the Allegheny County Police have not promised to stop seizing condoms during prostitution arrests, nor have they indicated they will stop regarding condom possession as evidence of sex crimes.

“We are glad that the Allegheny County Police will no longer regard condom possession as a crime,” said Susan J. Frietsche, senior staff attorney who runs the Pittsburgh office of the Women’s Law Project. “That’s a victory, but just a partial one. It will not be safe for sex workers to carry condoms until the police agree to stop using them as evidence of a crime. There should be no penalty whatsoever for condom use or possession.”

Jessie Sage, a c-founder of Pittsburgh SWOP, called the policy change a win but also told the Tribune that there was damage that still had to be undone.

“These practices have already negatively impacted the sex work community by disincentivizing safer sex practices,” Sage said. “Education and outreach about these changes in norms will now be an important project for all public health organizations who work with this population.”

The Women’s Law Project and the advocacy coalition that came together to respond to this crisis in Allegheny County plan to press the Allegheny County police and district attorney to stop seizing condoms and using them as evidence of prostitution. The group will also assess if criminalizing condoms is happening anywhere else in the state.

Do you know of this practice happening anywhere else in Pennsylvania? Let us know. Please contact Tara Murtha at tmurtha@womenslawproject.org.

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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