Sex for sale: Or, how to become a confidential informant

Sex for sale:  Or, how to become a confidential informant

For a good time, call “HoTT & spicy,” “IHOP—International House of Pleasure,” or “SeXy HoT” under the escort section of Backpage.com, where dates can run $200 an hour—or $70 for 15 minutes.

Back in February, Albemarle County Police arrested six people at the Courtyard Marriott on Hillsdale Drive who posted or were lured by ads like these, and some of those nabbed were offered what police say is an “opportunity” to buy drugs as a confidential informant in exchange for having their charges dropped.

Another player in the sting was the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force, and some critics are saying the stings are less about busting prostitutes and more about JADE getting informants to go after drug dealers.

One person, who spoke to C-VILLE only on the condition her name not be used, said she went to the Marriott February 19 and the undercover cop put money on the table. “I never touched it,” she said. Cops came into the room, pulled her into a side room, threatened that she could lose her kids because of the misdemeanor prostitution charge, and told her it would go away if she agreed to set up three drug dealers and make three buys from each while wearing a wire, she said.

The woman, who said she’s a recovering addict, declined to take the offer and received a 90-day suspended sentence. “Charlottesville is so small,” she said. “I’d be putting myself and my kids more at risk.” She said a couple of other women were handcuffed that night. “Not everybody got arrested,” confirmed Albemarle Lieutenant Todd Hopwood.

“They’re not looking for prostitutes,” said the woman. “All they want is to set up people for drugs.”

How big a problem is prostitution here? Hopwood said his department is concerned with human trafficking, and while he doesn’t have exact numbers on how often that’s happening, his officers have run into one woman being prostituted by her boyfriend. “One case is enough to continue to go after them,” he said.

The world’s oldest profession has changed since the old 20th-century days when hookers stood on a street corner waving down cars, said Hopwood. Now arrangements are made online on sites like Backpage and Craigslist.

And it was through Backpage that cops, posing as johns and hookers, ran the February sting, making one arrest for prostitution and five for solicitation, according to Albemarle police. One of the solicitation charges was dropped, one defendant received a 90-day suspended sentence, one was amended to profane language over public airways with the defendant sentenced to 90 days with 86 days suspended and one is still going through the system, according to court records.

“We follow guidelines coordinated with the commonwealth’s attorney so we know we’re not entrapping,” said Hopwood.

Police putting up ads on Backpage would not be entrapment, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford. That would require encouraging someone to take part in an activity they normally wouldn’t, she said.

An act and a price are also part of the arrest equation. “If a defendant said, I’d like a blowjob and that’ll be $50,” that’s sufficient for an arrest, said Lunsford. So is choosing a condom. Uttering “I want a quickie,” said Lunsford, would not be sufficient to arrest someone for solicitation of prostitution.

Lunsford said if someone wants to be a confidential informant, that would be part of plea bargaining with her office, not with cops. And she said threatening women arrested for prostitution with the loss of their children is not standard operating procedure. “It’s difficult to respond to an allegation when I can’t respond specifically,” she said.

Hopwood disagrees with the characterization that people are threatened with arrest unless they become snitches. “They’re offered an opportunity to work as an informant for the Commonwealth or police on other criminal activities,” he said. He did not clarify when deals were struck with those caught in the February sting.

In 2014, police say 15 arrests were made in the course of sex sting activity: six for prostitution, eight for solicitation and one for felony drug possession. Hopwood said JADE is often involved because prostitution and narcotics trafficking go hand in hand. “It’s like going after little fish to get to the bigger crime,” he explained.

Criminal defense attorney David Heilberg challenges that assertion, and said JADE is not bringing down kingpins with prostitution stings. “Now they’ve got small drug dealers and users ratting on each other,” he said. “Bottom feeders are feeding off each other.”

Although prostitution and solicitation are both Class 1 misdemeanors, said Heilberg, “The reason a non-serious charge carries so much leverage is the embarrassment factor.”

He also questions the lack of guidelines in such stings, and notes that in drunk driving roadblocks, there’s a whole manual of rules about how such ops are carried out. For the prostitution stings, said Heilberg, “There are no rules for setting them up and how you entice people of compromised judgment.”

Heilberg sees the recent sting as part of a trend of what he calls “overcriminalization” of things that are legal in other states. “Do we really need JADE to go after prostitutes?” he asked.

Lieutenant Joe Hatter, who runs JADE, did not respond to phone calls from C-VILLE. Nor did one of the arresting officers, Matt McCall.

Hopwood wants to put fear into the heart of anyone thinking about going online to find paid sex on sites like Craigslist or Hook up.com.

Said Hopwood, “You never know where we’re going to be.”

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