For three years now, Michigan has been the only U.S. state where it’s legal for undercover officers to sleep with sex workers on the job. But a bill currently making its way through the state legislature could change that.
Last week the Michigan Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 275, which seeks to amend the state’s 1931 law granting immunity to undercover officers who have sex with sex workers. The bill, which assigns criminal charges to officers found responsible, now passes to the House for a vote with uncertain support.
While the Michigan State Police Department hasn’t publicly challenged or supported the bill, it insists undercover officers never exercised their immunity and that they aren’t instructed to sleep with sex workers to gain their trust or collect evidence.
“There’s not much to say about this legislation, as it does not impact us,” Michigan State Police spokeswoman Shannon Banner wrote in an email. “This was not a tactic used by our troopers.”
But that’s not entirely true, according to Crysta, a sex worker who runs the Michigan chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Program, a sex worker-run harm-reduction campaign.
“Although publicly the state police have repeatedly said, ‘We never use that tactic,’ in the sex worker community, we know that’s false,” she said. “Officers have often had sex with sex workers in Michigan, but they just don’t report it.”
Michigan became the last U.S. state granting undercover officers this type of immunity in 2014, after Hawaii outlawed the practice. Since then, Bridgette Carr, the director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, has fought to change the law. As part of her efforts, Carr talked to a number of Michigan legislators who often expressed a mutual feeling of discomfort with the immunity — just not enough to fight for change.
“I would have many conversations with [legislators] who would be like, ‘Yep, I’m on on board, but it’s not going to go anywhere. So I don’t want to waste your time,’” Carr said.
In March of this year, however, Republican State Sen. Judy Emmons took on the task and brought the bill to the Senate floor. Emmons has spent the majority of her time in the Senate trying to end human trafficking, a growing issue in Michigan. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 69 cases in 2012 and 246 in 2016.
“[The bill] really ties hand in glove with trafficking and the victimization of individuals — and them being sold and being victimized again — if law enforcement has the opportunity to go without prosecution,” she said.
Emmons agrees with the Michigan State Police, however, that the law existed to protect undercover police officers but was never put into practice.
“I don’t think it was intentional. I just think because we had no reports of it, nobody was doing it, no law enforcement encourages it,” she said. “A lot of laws on the books are from decades ago, and many of them need to be eradicated, and this is one.”
Although sleeping with sex workers isn’t currently a crime for undercover officers in Michigan, sex workers and sex-trafficking victims are still vulnerable to coercion and abuse, especially on the streets, according to Crysta. But bad situations can also arise in hotels, massage parlors, and other shared indoor spaces during raids and stings. Sex workers have expressed frustration to Crysta that their reports — although rare because sex work is a misdemeanor in the state — often go ignored.
“Usually, if it is an undercover sting, the police officers enter the place of work or are in the car, they have sex and then they arrest or they’ll have sex and then come back another night.” she said. “We know on our end that [police] do do this. Every single time it happens, the prostitute is considered a liar.”
In 2003, a sex worker filed a report against the then Kalamazoo Valley enforcement Team Sgt. Stacey Geik for allegedly having sex with her during an undercover investigation. According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, Geik was taken off the team, which handles vice investigations, but was promoted to lieutenant three years later, in 2006. Geik couldn’t be reached for comment.
While Crysta said Michigan’s bill is a “step in the right direction,” it’s not necessarily a victory. For example, if the bill passes, police can be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 93 days in jail and/or a maximum fine of $500 if the officer has no prior convictions, but the language doesn’t propose a system for tracking officers’ violations or making them known to sex workers.
Carr is also skeptical about whether the bill will lessen the exploitation of sex workers and sex-trafficking victims, but she’s happy with what it represents for the future.
“It’s a win on principle, which says, ‘We are not OK living in a space where people with so much power can take advantage of people who can so easily be exploited. Period,’” Carr explained.