County prosecutorial bias alleged in solicitation cases

LAS VEGAS - A policy governing local prosecutors in prostitution cases discriminates against some women defendants, a judge has ruled.

Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Nancy Oesterle pointed to disparities in the options available to men and women charged with their first offense of soliciting prostitution.

The issue will be considered at an evidentiary hearing in November when prosecutors will try to validate the policy. The seven justices of the peace then will seek a collective decision that could affect from 25 to 57 cases.

''The burden now is on the state to show that there is a rational basis for the totality of the policy,'' said defense attorney Bill Terry, who challenged the policy on behalf of a client whose case is pending before Oesterle.

Clark County District Attorney Stewart Bell and other top administrators were out of town and not available for comment Wednesday.

Oesterle issued her written ruling Wednesday after examining documents that included several memos Bell wrote in December.

In one, the district attorney said prosecutors no longer should negotiate cases involving the crime of soliciting prostitution. ''The defendant will either plead guilty or be tried,'' he wrote.

However, he added that an exception would be made for male first-time offenders. Charges against those individuals could be dismissed upon completion of a well-regarded, one-day class on the dangers of prostitution.

The policy change came in response to complaints by civil libertarians that some exotic dancers were being treated unfairly. They said dancers were being denied work cards, which are required to work in strip clubs, for having been arrested on prostitution charges and without being convicted. In addition, licensed dancers who were arrested for soliciting sex for pay could have their work cards revoked.

In court documents, Terry acknowledged that prosecutors have full discretion in deciding whether to negotiate a case. However, he added those decisions can't be based on such factors as race or gender.

Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said he informed Terry on Wednesday that the ACLU will aid in the challenge to the policy.

''It is unfortunate that the district attorney has chosen to implement what is transparently an unconstitutional policy,'' Peck said.

Chief Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Jennifer Togliatti said she will preside at the November evidentiary hearing. She said all seven justices agreed such a hearing was necessary and are expected to file rulings similar to Oesterle's.

Togliatti said transcripts of the hearing will be distributed to the Las Vegas justices of the peace, who will try to adopt a common approach to the dozens of affected cases.

''We are going to make a collective decision,'' Togliatti said. ''It seems to be the most effective way to handle it, with the least confusion and the most consistency.''


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