Fargo police walk fine line while targeting prostitution undercover
FARGO - An attractive blonde walks into a Fargo hotel room followed by a mustached man in a black leather jacket. He asks what brought her to town.
"Stopping through, I guess," she says.
"Oh, cool," he says.
She sits at the foot of the bed. He sets his cash on the dresser and stands nervously in front of her.
"What are you looking for?" she asks.
"Well, you know, full service and ..." he says sheepishly, his voice trailing off.
"That is?" she says, seeking more clarity.
"I don't know. You're not a cop, are you?" he says, backing away.
"No, I'm not a cop. Are you a cop?"
"You show me, I'll show you," he says, smiling.
"I would like the money first and what we're gonna do," she says.
They eventually settle on terms and he hands her the cash - $150 for a half-hour.
"I'll be right back, I'm going to go to the bathroom and freshen up for you," she says, stepping out of view of a hidden camera that's been recording the transaction.
Seconds later, the door opens.
"Police department. Get on the ground!" a voice commands. "Get your hands out of your pockets! Lay down! Lay down!"
The sting led to the john's arrest, one of four sex solicitation cases charged in Cass County District Court last year.
Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel said the department doesn't keep statistics on the number of stings conducted and how many arrests results from each, but it's rare that an arrest isn't made, he said.
When arrests are made in prostitution stings, the department usually issues a news release to the media - the only Class B misdemeanor crime to receive such publicity on a regular basis, which speaks to the emphasis that police put on curbing the sex trade here.
Only a handful of prostitution cases are charged in Cass County every year. Four women were charged with prostitution in 2007, two in 2008, three each in 2009 and 2010, five in 2011 and six so far this year. One juvenile case also is pending, Assistant State's Attorney Reid Brady said.
A total of eight johns were charged during the same period, with the highest total for a single year being four in 2011. Two have been charged so far this year.
Fargo police employ a variety of tactics during the stings that lead to many of the prostitution cases, as seen in videos - obtained by The Forum newspaper through an open records request - of stings targeting suspected prostitutes and johns.
'A fine line'
Lt. Vettel said police walk "a fine line" in determining what undercover prostitutes and johns - most of them law enforcement officers, some not - can do during stings. Police have reviewed past court rulings and work with the state's attorney's office to set guidelines, he said.
"We are extremely careful in prioritizing what is appropriate," he said. "Obviously, our biggest priority in these types of operations is safety for those involved."
Entrapment is often a defense in prostitution cases if police are inducing someone to commit a crime when they otherwise wouldn't be predisposed to it, said Fargo defense attorney Mark Friese.
"But the problem is proving that defense at trial is difficult because oftentimes the perpetrator, the person who is arrested, initiates the contact, so the prosecution argues they're predisposed to commit the crime in the first instance," he said.
If police violate the law in order to make arrests or obtain convictions, a court may dismiss the criminal charge based on due process grounds that the conduct rises to the level of outrageousness, he said.
"And I think that argument has been presented in a handful of these cases based on some of the tactics that the police have been using, but to my knowledge it's not been successful," he said.
Vettel said the stings are well thought out.
"We're very comfortable with where these operations have gone, and we're very comfortable with the results that we've gotten from these types of stings," he said.
The lengths police go to in the busts may surprise some.
In one sting video, an undercover officer removes all of his clothes to gain the trust of two suspected prostitutes who insist that he be naked before they'll discuss terms of the deal.
"Take your skivvies off," orders one of the women.
The fake john complies.
"Am I gonna get sex or anything like that?" he asks.
"You'll be satisfied," says the other woman, wearing a hooded sweatshirt. "I'm just scared to talk. You're freaking me out."
"Well, you're freaking me out," he says. "You guys aren't cops, are you?"
Later, when he asks one of the women too many questions about what sexual activity will be allowed, the woman in the sweatshirt again says, "You're freaking me out. You're making me - you sound like a cop right now, asking questions and ..."
"Well, I just, I've been screwed over before," he says, trying to regain their trust.
Ending with an exit
All of the stings reviewed by The Forum ended in roughly the same fashion.
After finalizing the terms of service and collecting or handing over the cash, the fake prostitute or john made up a reason to go to the bathroom or leave the room. Vettel said the reason for this is to remove the unarmed, undercover person from the situation when the bust goes down.
Two or three officers in bulletproof vests typically enter the room, often with one keeping a gun drawn on the suspect. That decision is based on police intelligence, observation and the suspect's criminal history, he said.
"We leave that up to the supervisor that's conducting the operation to determine what the appropriate response into that area would be," he said.
The Forum attempted to contact those who were caught in the stings and had listed phone numbers. The one woman and one man who were reached both declined comment.
Worth the resources?
Police Chief Keith Ternes said he knows some critics believe police shouldn't waste their time targeting an activity between consenting adults - something he said is happening "with an incredible amount of regularity" in Fargo.
Fargo police have long raised concerns about advertisements for adult entertainment and exotic dancers that appear on websites such as Backpage.com and in newspaper classifieds sections, some of which they believe are ads for prostitution.
In one of the videos, the suspected john inquires about "upselling," or paying beyond the rate for a private nude dance to obtain sexual services.
In another, the suspected prostitute tells the undercover john that a private nude show costs $150 and that from there she works in "tips" in $50 increments.
"So, the more you tip, the more I can do," she says, going on to explain that sex will cost $300 if it's less than a half-hour.
Friese, a former police officer, is among those who question whether the stings are worth the time and staff consumed, noting they take narcotics officers and investigators out of their usual roles.
"In my opinion, it's too many resources for too little impact," he said.
Prostitution and soliciting sex are Class B misdemeanors in North Dakota, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The cases often result in a guilty plea and deferred imposition of sentence, meaning if the offender doesn't violate probation, the charge is removed from their public record (though prosecutors can still look it up if they reoffend).
"To be honest with you, once the arrest has occurred, most defendants are better off pleading guilty because you get a deferral, and then at the end of the deferral period the file is sealed, so it's not accessible," Friese said. "So that's oftentimes a better resolution than an outright dismissal of the charge," in which case the charge will still show up in a public records search.
Friese said that while prostitution is a crime and shouldn't be completely ignored, with the recent rash of armed robberies and violent crimes in Fargo, "I would think that the resources could be dedicated to the more pressing concerns."
Police argue that prostitution often is accompanied by theft, assaults, drug activity and other crimes, and that it diminishes the quality of life in a community.
Ternes said if all those would-be prostitutes who advertise their services online were standing on street corners in Fargo, "my phone would be ringing off the hook."
"It's an issue that we try to keep in check," he said.
Ordinance in the works
The police department and city attorney's office are working on a new tool to aid that effort: an ordinance regulating adult entertainment businesses through licensing. A draft is expected to be presented to the City Commission in late January at the earliest, Ternes said.
Adult entertainment businesses would be required to pay a minimal fee for a license to operate within the city, he said.
Ternes said some may think it's an overreach, but there are several problems police are trying to combat with the ordinance.
One is that a lot of the unlawful adult entertainment taking place in the city is by transients - mostly women - from Minneapolis, Chicago and elsewhere, many on their way out to the oil fields in western North Dakota, he said. They spend a day or two in Fargo, at a hotel or other location, and engage in unlawful activity that may include more than prostitution, he said.
"One of our interests is to make sure that those individuals aren't just able to set up shop here in Fargo for a short period of time," he said.
Police also don't want adult entertainment businesses operating out of homes in residential areas, especially near schools. The businesses will have to be sited in appropriately zoned areas, Ternes said.
That's unlikely to affect dancers' ability to make home visits to perform for private clients, and police aren't interested in prohibiting that, Ternes said.
"I want to be very, very careful not to be too intrusive," he said.