The city of Seattle City Council has voted to strike down its drug-traffic and prostitution loitering laws. The vote was unanimous. I should emphasize that it is not drug-traffic and prostitution laws that were struck down, just drug-traffic and prostitution loitering laws. At least the Seattle City Council got it half right.
According to Title 12A, Subtitle I, Chapters 12A.10 and 12A.20 of the Seattle criminal code:
A person is guilty of prostitution loitering if he or she remains in a public place and intentionally solicits, induces, entices, or procures another to commit prostitution.
A person is guilty of drug-traffic loitering if he or she remains in a public place and intentionally solicits, induces, entices, or procures another to engage in unlawful conduct contrary to chapter 69.41, 69.50, or 69.52 RCW.
(“69.41, 69.50, or 69.52 RCW” is a reference to the Revised Code of Washington state drug laws.)
U.S. News reports that the loitering laws “have rarely been enforced in Seattle courts in recent years.” It turns out that “the Seattle City Attorney’s Office filed fewer than 300 charges on both drug traffic loitering and prostitution loitering counts since 2009.” And “there have been no cases filed since … 2018.”
The decision to stop charging residents with these loitering crimes stemmed from the work of the Seattle Reentry Workgroup, “a group of experts and people with lived experience in the criminal justice system tasked with examining how the city could better support people exiting the criminal justice system and cut down on inequities.”
“I have long questioned the use of loitering crimes as a law-enforcement tool, and am grateful that the 2018 Reentry Workgroup helped shine a light on their racist origins,” said City Attorney Pete Holmes.
“These laws were never appropriate, they were wrong when they were enacted and they are wrong now,” said council member Andrew Lewis, the lead sponsor of the “manifestly unjust” ordinances.
Some organizations want the city of Seattle to do more.
In a letter addressed to the City Attorney’s Office and Seattle City Council members the King County Department of Public Defense and the ACLU of Washington asked city leaders “to stop prosecuting most misdemeanor offenses” and reinvest the money saved “into our communities.” The letter specifically mentions misdemeanor offenses such as theft, criminal trespass, harassment, and assaults without significant injury. The criminal legal system “is racist, ineffective, and expensive” said the letter.
I live across the country from Seattle, have been to Seattle only one time, and don’t know enough about the city to comment on whether its legal system, police, or laws are racist. There is no doubt that loitering statutes are fraught with constitutional problems. They have generally been found to be vague, over-broad laws that result in arrests based on suspicion rather than probable cause and criminalize status rather than conduct.
The problem is the nature of “public” property. Some public spaces are meant for people to loiter: parks, playgrounds, beaches, pavilions, park benches, trails, and town squares.
In a free society there would not necessarily be no public property. Two things are certain: (1) there would certainly be much less public property, and (2) private property would never be considered public property, as is sometimes the case now.
Good people may argue the pros and cons of carefully crafted local loitering statutes in a free society. There are, however, two loitering laws that would not exist in a free society: drug-traffic and prostitution loitering laws. They would not exist because in a free society there would be no drug-traffic or prostitution laws.
In a free society, the functions of government — in whatever form it exists — would be limited to prosecuting and exacting restitution from those who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or violate the personal or property rights of others. As libertarian theorist Doug Casey recently put it,
Since government is institutionalized coercion — a very dangerous thing — it should do nothing but protect people in its bailiwick from physical coercion. What does that imply? It implies a police force to protect you from coercion within its boundaries, an army to protect you from coercion from outsiders, and a court system to allow you to adjudicate disputes without resorting to coercion.
In a free society, the government simply leaves those alone who don’t threaten or initiate violence against the person or property of others. And that includes those who buy, sell, cultivate, process, or use drugs as well as those who procure sex for money or prostitute their bodies.
That doesn’t mean that using drugs or engaging in sex for money is not risky, addictive, self-destructive, unhealthy, or dangerous. Likewise, it doesn’t mean that using drugs or engaging in sex for money is wholesome, moral, honorable, wise, or harmless.
It just means that a person should be free to live his life in any manner he chooses as long as his activities are nonviolent, non-disorderly, non-disruptive, non-threatening, and noncoercive.
The war on drugs should be ended immediately and completely at all levels — federal, state, and local. All drug laws should be repealed, and all nonviolent drug offenders should be pardoned and released from prison. There should be a free market in drugs without any government interference, regulation, taxing, or licensing.
It is indeed puzzling why drugs are illegal and tobacco and alcohol — which kill tens of thousands more Americans every year than drugs — are legal.
The acts of prostitution and procuring of prostitutes should never be considered crimes. Every crime should have a tangible and identifiable victim with real harm and measurable damages. There should be a free market in sex services without any government interference, regulation, taxing, or licensing.
It is even more puzzling why prostitution is illegal in the first place. How can it be illegal to sell something that you can give away for free? How illogical that it is legal for someone to be paid to have sex — in front of a director, camera, and crew — but that it is illegal for someone to be paid to have sex in the privacy of his house, apartment, or hotel room. How ridiculous that it is legal for consenting adults to have sex as often as they want and with as many different partners as they want, but that it is illegal if one of the participants pays the other for it.
The city of Seattle got it only half right.