The St. Petersburg Police Department street crimes unit used a tough new prostitution law that went into effect earlier this month to crack down on men looking to pay for sex, known as 'johns,' during an undercover sting on Wednesday.
"There is no stereotypical john," said Sgt. Mario Aliberto. "You get everybody from guys in business suits to guys in construction work. I mean just every race, religion, every type."
Aliberto said johns typically look for prostitutes walking the 34th Street corridor between Fifth Avenue N and 22nd Avenue N, during lunch or right after work.
We rode along with the street crimes unit as they used undercover female officers who posed as prostitutes. It didn't take long before men began approaching the decoys.
"We make sure we give them ample opportunity to disengage from such activity," Aliberto said. "But if they choose to continue to solicit, then they are charged, are arrested for such."
In less than three hours, police had arrested five men on solicitation for prostitution charges. Those men face tougher penalties under a new prostitution law that went into effect on Oct. 1.
That law makes paying for sex a first-degree misdemeanor on a first offense, it used to be a second-degree misdemeanor. A second offense is a third-degree felony with a minimum sentence of 10 days in jail and a maximum sentence of five years in prison. A third offense is a second-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
It appeared that 75-year-old John Paris was going to be the first St. Petersburg man to be arrested for felony prostitution because he told officers that he had been arrested for prostitution in the past. Police said Paris was caught on an audio recording offering to pay a decoy $10 for oral sex.
"She said, '10 bucks.' I didn’t say it, she did," Paris said. "I just crossed the street and she approached me."
The prospect of facing jail time under the tough new law was enough to scare Paris straight.
"I can’t go to jail. I’ve got an 83-year-old wife at home sick," Paris said. "Give me a break and let me pay a fine or something... I promise I won’t do anything, I won’t do it again."
Turns out Paris was not convicted for his first prostitution arrest so he dodged the felony on his second arrest, according to Aliberto. Chief Anthony Holloway said cracking down on prostitution is one of his priorities to reduce overall crime in the city.
"Ninety percent of the females and males that are prostituting are doing it so they can either fix their habit, which is cocaine or heroin," he said. "So, we figure if we target that population... we can reduce prostitution in our city and we can also reduce the drugs in our city."
According to St. Petersburg police statistics, officers have made more than double the amount of prostitution arrests during the first half of this year, as compared to last year, before Holloway took over. From January to June there were 65 arrests in 2014. During that same time frame this year, there has been 134 arrests.
Chief Holloway said he believes the new law is going to make johns think twice before they hit the streets looking for prostitutes.
"That is a great law because what is really going out to the johns now is saying, ‘hey, you’ve got to stop,’” he said. "You’re talking about a $5,000 fine now. You’re also talking about the judge has the discretion to take your vehicle away from you for 30 days, if it’s not a family vehicle."
But defense attorney Kevin Hayslett said some people think the new law is too tough.
"A lot of people would argue mere words, that means not an act, but your words alone being prosecuted and looking up to 15 years in prison is extremely harsh," he said. "You’ve got to remember a lot of times that people will get involved with these decoy prostitutes with no intent of actually going through with the act."
Aliberto said Wednesday's undercover operation was the first sting targeting johns since the new law passed and there will be more in the future.