Costa Mesa’s Street Fight : Prostitutes’ Clothing Seized, New Loitering Law Enforced


The pair of young prostitutes smiled for their mug shots as officers pulled pockets full of evidence from the women’s black jackets--half a dozen condoms, a loose wad of cash and a canister of Mace each, in case of danger.

By the time the 18-year-old from Montana and her 23-year-old friend were released from the city jail on a recent night, police had taken one other key item into evidence: their clothes. The women, who arrived in matching stretch pants and skimpy exercise bras, walked into the night wearing only the Police Department’s signature white paper jumpsuits.

The practice of seizing the clothes of suspected prostitutes is just one in an arsenal of enforcement tools that frustrated officers hope will put a dent in the revolving door of misdemeanor prostitution arrests. In a time of shrinking budgets, when arrest often means little more than a few hours of inconvenience, police say they must turn to more extreme methods.


Since last month, officers also have embraced a hotly debated new state law that makes loitering with the intent to commit prostitution illegal. They regularly conduct stings aimed at customers, or “johns.” And they recently began slapping the women with conspiracy charges and arresting them for prowling and trespassing when they ply their trade on private property.

Critics denounce the paper clothing as sexist and possibly unconstitutional, noting that no other criminal suspects are treated this way.

“You can bet if they started stripping the male customers, it wouldn’t last very long,” said Mary Broderick, executive director of the Los Angeles-based California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. “All they have to do is put Hugh Grant out in the street in a little paper suit.”

But vice detectives say the jumpsuit gimmick--practiced quietly in Costa Mesa for the past five years--is a legal and effective way to make the arrest process as unpleasant as possible. The goal: to slow the steady stream of streetwalkers, even if only for one night.

“The more we can cost a hooker--as far as the time out of service--and do it within the legal framework, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Costa Mesa Police Sgt. Loren Wyrick said. “We’re trying to make them as uncomfortable as possible.”

The heart of the prostitution corridor that has spurred the crackdown is a stretch of Harbor Boulevard dotted with office parks and frequented by noon-hour business traffic.


Girls as young as 13 and seasoned streetwalkers with as many as 30 prior arrests have been hauled through the book-and-release process in recent months. One woman--seven months pregnant--was arrested twice in a two-hour period last month and again the following day after she shed her jumpsuit for a change of work clothes stashed somewhere nearby.

Another, eager to get back to work, once cut her white paper suit into hot pants, wrapped a belt around it and was back on the street within minutes of her release, Wyrick said.

The steady prostitution traffic in recent years has enraged business owners in the area’s commercial complexes, many of which are owned by real estate scion Anton Segerstrom. Parking lots, some of them now chained off to easy public access, have increasingly been the site of quickie “car dates,” as motels in the area more closely scrutinize their clientele.

“It’s offensive to employees, and to your customers who are coming into your buildings,” said one purchasing manager who asked not to be identified. “I’ve seen [the women] get dropped off in our parking lot. You see it all the time at lunchtime.”

On a stretch of Harbor Boulevard between Baker Street and MacArthur Boulevard, police arrested 93 suspected prostitutes in the six-month period ending in December, Costa Mesa Sgt. Gary McErlain said. Of those, 28 were arrested for prowling--standing on private property with the alleged intent to commit a crime.

Figures for this year were not available, but McErlain estimated that officers arrested about 25 women in January alone under the new loitering law.

The enforcement also targets demand. Thursday night, undercover female vice officers hit the street as decoys, pulling in a steady flow of customers.

The sting netted 31 johns in about five hours, including a car salesman who wanted to lick the undercover vice officer’s toes, a state worker from Coto de Caza whose wife recently gave birth, a bank employee and a high school teacher who had stepped out to buy his pregnant wife a candy bar and a Slurpee when he drove past the undercover streetwalkers and opted for a quick detour. Instead, he was photographed, fingerprinted and jammed into a borrowed bus with several dozen other sour-faced men.

“I’m stupid. I made a major mistake,” the Costa Mesa man moaned as he sat in a makeshift booking area where reserve officers and senior volunteers munched pizza and helped process the stream of men. “My wife is going to go nuts.”

All but two of the men were later cited and released. One was cited under the new loitering law, which has been virulently opposed by civil libertarians who contend it treats innocent behavior as criminal.

Some Costa Mesa detectives concede that the law, more often used against prostitutes, will likely be challenged in court because other municipal antiloitering ordinances have been successfully overturned.

For now, however, police plan to use it often to send a strong message.

“Some of the officers have seen [the prostitutes] just standing on the street,” Wyrick said. “They knew what the women were up to, but didn’t have the legal probable cause to go up to them.”

Orange County Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler criticized the “loose” language of the new law.

“They might be a prostitute but their intent at that time might be to go to church,” Butler said. “They might be flagging down a ride to get to the chapel.”

But it is the practice of taking the women’s clothes as evidence--an unusual tactic not practiced for other suspected criminals and used by very few law enforcement agencies--that has most angered defense attorneys and civil libertarians.

“It’s outrageous,” Broderick said. “It’s incredibly sexist. It’s incredibly demeaning. It sounds to me like it’s got to be unconstitutional.”

The Police Department’s principal goal in seizing the outfits--to discourage the prostitutes from walking the streets--raises some legal questions, she said.

“There’s probably an equal protection argument, that they’re stripping the females of their clothing and not stripping their male customers,” Broderick said.

The prostitutes are equally as upset about the practice.

“I think it’s stupid that they confiscate it for evidence. What do clothes have to do with it?” said the 23-year-old woman arrested with her friend. Both were caught up in the sting aimed at johns on a recent evening. Police arrested them on suspicion of solicitation as the decoy undercover officers strutted back and forth on a short strip of Harbor Boulevard north of Scenic Avenue.

Police say that suggestive outfits have plenty to do with soliciting.

“There’s a certain manner of dress that’s designed to attract attention, and a certain way they interact with the traffic that shows they have nowhere to go,” said Wyrick, who stressed that clothing alone would never be considered evidence of prostitution.

The clothes of male customers aren’t seized because they are regular street clothes and men “are not going to be right back on the street trying to sell their wares” or solicit more sex, Costa Mesa Police Chief David L. Snowden said.

Added Snowden: “I think it’s universally recognized that prostitution is a crime most communities don’t want to be a part of. I know the jumpsuit discourages [the prostitutes] more than the fine does.”