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Seizing Johns’ Wheels to Put Brakes on Prostitution

Times Staff Writer

Police Capt. Michael Downing needed a new tactic to help his vice officers keep prostitutes off the streets of Hollywood.

When the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance allowing police to seize the cars of pimps and “johns” soliciting prostitution, Downing thought he finally had the tool to do it.

But one year after the law went into effect, police say results are not meeting expectations.

The big reason is understaffing at the city attorney’s office, which handles the car seizure litigation. The problem also has undermined LAPD plans -- approved by the City Council -- to expand vehicle seizures to target those caught buying narcotics, street racing, pandering or dumping trash.

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Eighteen police divisions stand in line for one such operation each month. In January, two vehicle seizure narcotics operations in the Southeast and Hollywood divisions were put on hold because the city attorney’s office couldn’t handle them simultaneously with paperwork from the prostitution task force.

Downing said he has had a hard time getting out the Police Department’s message: “Solicit a prostitute and risk losing your car.” Weekly seizures are needed, he said.

Last year, the LAPD ran just four prostitution stings in Hollywood, seizing 56 cars. In settlements with the city attorney’s office, owners were allowed to buy back their vehicles for an average of $980. Court documents indicate that more expensive vehicles typically were redeemed for less than $4,000.

Downing says the penalties do not dig deep enough into offenders’ pockets.

“I think we should put more teeth into it,” Downing said. “Why not use [the law] to the full extent? Sell the car. Seize it and sell it. And if they want to buy it back for fair market value, then let them buy it back. But the message will be much louder and much clearer if you follow that philosophy.”

In December, a 2000 Toyota Tundra was reclaimed for $4,900, which represented roughly half the value of the car, said Deputy City Atty. Barbara Hamilton. A few months earlier, a 1997 Mitsubishi Montero was sold back for $600. A leased 2003 Mercedes-Benz G55 was returned for a payment of $3,000, according to the city attorney’s office.

Settlements have not been higher because most of the expensive vehicles were leased or were still being paid off, said Hamilton, who handles all of the LAPD’s vehicle seizure cases.

“What we’re really talking about is the driver’s equity in the vehicle,” Hamilton said. “That’s what gets forfeited.”

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In determining the buy-back value of a vehicle, the city attorney considers such things as hardship, prior criminal record, and whether the owner was the person driving the car. By law, a leasing company’s or lien holder’s interests in the vehicles are protected. One-third of the vehicles seized last year were driven by people who didn’t own the seized car. Rental cars are released to the rental company.

In Los Angeles, vehicle forfeiture is a civil process separate from the criminal process. A car can be forfeited even if a motorist is not convicted of a criminal act.

After a vehicle is seized, a notice is sent to the owner, who then has 10 days to contest the forfeiture in Superior Court. Most people settle the lawsuit by paying a fine in lieu of going to trial.

It also makes sense financially for the city to settle early, Hamilton said. If a case goes to trial and the city wins, towing and storage fees are deducted. If no one contests the forfeiture and the city proves that the vehicle was used for the prohibited purpose, the car is auctioned.

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Proceeds from each sale go to the city’s general fund. However, for two of the three seized vehicles at auction last year, net proceeds to the city were zero because of towing and storage fees.

Legal and law enforcement officials agree that seizing cars can be an effective tool in car-dependent Los Angeles.

“Given that most johns won’t get any jail time, this is probably the best way to get their attention,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal evidence at Loyola Law School.

But the program takes time and money. With an average of 15 vehicles seized in each operation, even one a month creates a lot of paperwork.

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“When LAPD seizes 20 vehicles,” Hamilton said, “I have 20 cases to either settle or try within 45 days.”

Councilman Tom LaBonge, who sponsored the vehicle seizure measure, said he wants to hire more staff for the program.

Vehicle seizure laws are in effect in Stockton and a handful of cities across the nation.

Oakland police have been taking the cars of those caught soliciting prostitutes or buying drugs since 1998. After more than 30 operations, the city has towed more than 500 cars, averaging $800 in settlements and fees for each vehicle, according to the Oakland Police Department.

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Not every city with a drug or prostitution problem, however, has embraced the law. In 2000, San Francisco County supervisors voted against adopting such an ordinance, saying the plan would erode the rights of people who are accused but not convicted of crimes.

But in Hollywood, said LaBonge, the program can help change a sometimes unpleasant atmosphere.

“It’s tough to be a kid off Sunset Boulevard,” said LaBonge. “If you’re walking home from Hollywood High School right now, dressed as a very fashionable young person, chances are if you’re passing by Sunset and Stanley, a poor-quality individual may haunt you trying to solicit you as a prostitute.”

During the overnight sting operation in January that netted 17 cars and 26 arrests, a stream of cars rolled up to talk to undercover female officers posing as prostitutes on street corners.

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It’s not uncommon for those who live near Sunset and Vine to be “getting up at 6 a.m. in the morning to pick up used condoms on the street before their 3-year-old picks it up and thinks it’s a balloon,” said Sgt. Alan Hamilton, a former Hollywood vice supervisor.

There are other tolls as well, and Downing disputes the contention that prostitution is a victimless crime.

“You have the exploitation of women and children, you have the spread of disease, you have the disrespect that’s brought into the community,” Downing said. “And the byproducts of this pimping and drugs bring violent crime to communities.”


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