Group seeking to legalize prostitution sues Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch

Jill Ravitch and other officials are named as defendants in a U.S. District Court case that argues the 14th Amendment protects individual liberty over private sexual conduct.|

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch - and, by extension, the county’s law enforcement community - has been drawn into a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the California law criminalizing prostitution.

Ravitch and three other Northern California district attorneys, as well as state Attorney General Kamala Harris, are named as defendants in the U.S. District Court case, which argues, in part, that the 14th Amendment protects individual liberty over private sexual conduct, regardless of whether it’s paid for.

The suit reflects recent case law and rulings that limit government interference in personal decisions involving sex, including the landmark 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated laws prohibiting sex between same-sex couples.

“This, as a general rule, should counsel against attempts by the State, or a court, to define the meaning of the relationship or to set its boundaries absent injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects,” the ruling states.

The more recent lawsuit was filed March 4 in San Francisco by the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Education & Research Project on behalf of four individual plaintiffs, including a Sonoma County resident and onetime sex worker who would like to continue her chosen profession but for the state’s legal prohibition, the suit says.

That’s how Ravitch came to be a defendant: She is the top law enforcement official in the county where that particular plaintiff, identified only as J.B., lives.

But Maxine Doogan, president of ESPLERP, a San Francisco-based coalition advocating on behalf of erotic workers, said Sonoma County is an appropriate party in the case, given what she called “egregious” conduct of law enforcement officers during undercover stings and “shame-based” treatment of criminal defendants in commercial sex-trade cases.

“We’re hoping our landmark case, our historic landmark case, will offer some relief,” Doogan said.

At the center of the case is a section of the California Penal Code under which anyone who agrees to engage in or engages in “any lewd act between persons for money or other consideration” is guilty of misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

The plaintiffs say the code section, developed by a law professor in 1961, is based solely on a particular sense of morality.

They say there was never a demonstration that the commercial exchange of sex between consenting adults - as distinct from human trafficking - resulted in any harm. They say “there is no compelling or legitimate governmental interest in its criminalization.”

But the criminal law creates victims among both those who would make a living in the sex trade were it not illegal, the plaintiffs contend, as well as those for whom sexual intimacy is possible only with a professional provider. One of the four plaintiffs is a disabled man who wants to be able to procure the services of a sex worker.

The other three plaintiffs, all sex workers, have been robbed of the right to earn income from their chosen of line of work and face further discrimination in housing, education, child-custody decisions and other areas of life if they do, the lawsuit says.

Moreover, said Doogan, who has been a sex worker herself, the criminalization of prostitution exposes participants to the possibility of arrest and prosecution if they try to report assault or abusive behavior toward themselves or someone else. They’re not taken seriously as victims, she said, nor are they safe to report criminal behavior they might witness, such as human trafficking or child abuse.

“We need to get prostitution decriminalized, and we need to get equal protection under the law,” Doogan said.

The suit, in some ways, resulted from the failure of a 2008 San Francisco ballot measure that would have prevented local authorities from enforcing laws prohibiting the exchange of sex for money.

Doogan, a proponent of Measure K, said her coalition began preparing for a court case almost as soon as the measure failed.

She said she contacted willing plaintiffs through her network of associates and connected with Louis Sirkin, a well-known First Amendment attorney in Cincinnati. Sirkin and his partner, Brian O’Connor, are the lead attorneys in the case; San Francisco attorney Gill Sperlein also is assisting.

In separate interviews, O’Connor and Sperlein said a variety of high court cases have established the right to personal privacy in matters of sex and specifically reject the notion of any one party attempting to impose a moral code on others, without some other overriding interest.

O’Connor also cited a dissenting opinion in Lawrence v. Texas by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in which Scalia said the ruling “called into question” all laws rationalized by public morality, like those prohibiting prostitution.

“He’s basically saying, ‘If you can’t criminalize sodomy based on morality, how can you criminalize prostitution based on morality?’?” O’Connor said.

The defendants include Ravitch, Harris, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, Marin County District Attorney Edward Berberian, and Nancy O’Malley, head prosecutor in Alameda County, which is considered a leader in the effort to combat commercial sex trade and related human trafficking.

Neither Ravitch nor her chief deputy, Bill Brockley, was available to comment on the case Friday. Ravitch said she had not been formally served yet and had not reviewed the suit carefully.

But the lawsuit comes during a period of renewed collaboration among Sonoma County law enforcement agencies on the issue of commercialized sex, driven by increasing business in the area generally; extensive use of the Internet for marketing and negotiating services; and rising concern and awareness about exploitation of women, minors and even some men who are forced or coerced into prostitution against their will.

Brockley is chairman of the county’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, and Ravitch said in a January press release that the committee’s reinvigoration a few years ago had led to more criminal case filings.

“Through this collaborative effort, we are saving lives and holding those who traffic these victims accountable,” she said.

But Doogan and her attorneys sought to distinguish willing providers of sex for money from those who are forced into service through violence or other means.

They have an ally in Santa Rosa Junior College psychology professor J. Davis Mannino, whose research and work over the years has brought him into contact with a great many sex workers, many of whom take pride and enjoyment in their profession, he said.

“It is just too simplistic to state there is no personal choice in the decision to become an erotic service provider or sex worker,” Mannino said via email Friday. “This profession greatly softens the forces of nature and in many ways humanizes human sexuality.”

But O’Connor said no one expected an easy road, and that the case would likely go beyond the District Court.

“We’re preparing for a long battle through the appellate courts,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@press? On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette