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Stricter law adds bite to Salt Lake prostitution sting

If you don't want to have to explain to your spouse of significant other why you need a ride home from jail, then don't attempt to patronize a prostitute. That's the message Salt Lake police want to get across to all potential "johns."
If you don't want to have to explain to your spouse of significant other why you need a ride home from jail, then don't attempt to patronize a prostitute. That's the message Salt Lake police want to get across to all potential "johns."
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SALT LAKE CITY — If you don't want to have to explain to your spouse or significant other why you need a ride home from the Salt Lake County Jail, then don't attempt to patronize a prostitute.

That's the message Salt Lake police want to get across to all potential "johns."

The penalty for soliciting a prostitute increased earlier this year from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor. And with the restrictions on the jail recently lifted, Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking said every person arrested for patronizing a prostitute will go to jail and their car will be impounded. In addition, a person convicted of patronizing a prostitute could face a $2,500 fine.

"We want the message out there that you can't come to Salt Lake and pick up prostitutes and not have consequences for that," he said.

To drive home that point, Salt Lake police have been conducting a prostitution sting since Tuesday. Undercover female officers have been walking the city's streets at various hours and posting "ads" on websites. When a person approaches an undercover officer on the street or meets them at a hotel room through an ad and offers money in exchange for sexual favors, that person is arrested and taken to jail.

"Prostitution has been a problem. And now, people are recognizing that prostitution deals with human trafficking. It's all intertwined. And very often these women that are prostituting themselves are victims," Wilking said. "They are drug addicted. They have mental health issues. And by continuing to allow them to prostitute themselves, they continue to be victimized and more trauma occurs. So, the idea is we disrupt it. We penalize those people that are creating the demand."

The sting has covered a wide area of the city, focusing mainly on the North Temple corridor, the area around the homeless shelter, and between 900 South to 2100 South along State and Main streets.

The people being arrested come from all walks of life, and many come from outside of Salt Lake City, he said. Many also have wives and children.

"It's a lot of different people coming from a lot of different areas," he said.

In one case, he said a tow truck driver on his way to pick up a car was arrested after first making a stop with one of the undercover officers.

As of Friday morning, 39 people had been arrested. Wilking said detectives expected to surpass 50 arrests by Friday night.

Those arrested range in age from 19 to 77, and came from places like Boise, Midway, Layton and Sandy, according to Salt Lake County Jail records.

Those arrested have offered to pay undercover officers anywhere from $20 to $120 for sex acts, according to jail reports, some of which state the roundup is part of Operation Rio Grande.

The other part of the operation is reaching out to actual prostitutes and helping them get in contact with the treatment and services they need, Wilking said.

Under the previous Utah law, a person could only be convicted of patronizing a prostitute if he or she engaged in a sex act for money. The new law passed in March says a person is guilty if he or she "offers or agrees" to engage in a sexual activity for money.

In addition to increasing the crime from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor, the new law says that crime becomes a third-degree felony with a third conviction.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam