NEW YORK (AP) — A New York judge tossed out thousands of prostitution-related cases dating to the 1970s on Wednesday at the request of the Manhattan district attorney, who announced he would no longer prosecute many offenses related to sex work.
The mass dismissal of charges is the latest big step in a movement to decriminalize prostitution — or at least aim prosecutions at people involved in human exploitation, rather than at the mostly poor women who have historically made up the bulk of people arrested.
Many of the dismissed cases involved the former crime of loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution. Earlier this year, the state Legislature repealed a 1970s anti-loitering law that opponents decried as a “walking while trans” ban.
State court Judge Charlotte Davidson dismissed the cases after District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a Democrat, told the court in a video hearing that he wanted the cases dropped because the accused were “unfairly targeted.”
“By vacating warrants, dismissing cases and erasing convictions for these charges, we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach,” Vance said in a statement after the decision. “These cases … are both a relic of a different New York, and a very real burden for the person who carries the conviction or bench warrant.”
Vance’s office said it had identified about 6,000 cases in its records where there were convictions or open warrants with top charges of misdemeanor prostitution or unlicensed massage.
In February, New York repealed a 1976 law that allowed police to arrest people who appeared to be using a public space for prostitution. Police could make that judgment based on someone’s dress or appearance. Lawmakers pointed to police reports that cited “wearing a skirt” as grounds to make an arrest.
Eight people — including five transgender woman of color — filed a 2016 lawsuit challenging the old law as discriminatory, saying it had led to arbitrary arrests of transgender people in particular. The plaintiffs said people were still being detained “simply because an officer takes issue with her clothing or appearance.”
Since then, local district attorneys had started to voluntarily stopped enforcing the law.
Vance’s office would still prosecute more serious crimes related to prostitution, including those involving coercion or human trafficking.
The decision was applauded by activists, defense lawyers and lawmakers who have lobbied for changes in the law.
“However, this policy should not supplant the need to pass legislation that would fully decriminalize sex work and provide for criminal record relief for people convicted of prostitution offense,” Abigail Swenstein, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, said in a joint statement with Vance.
Some other prosecutors in the region have taken similar steps. The top prosecutors in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have all dismissed hundreds of prostitution cases in recent months.
Top prosecutors in Philadelphia and Baltimore have also curtailed prostitution enforcement.