Houston Tries to Banish Sex Workers

“Sometimes, you have to go after the people.”

Women stand near cars idling near or parked in a lot.
The Bissonnet “Track” in Houston. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo from Harris County Attorney’s Office.

In August 2018, the mayor of Houston—flanked by the Houston Police Department chief, county attorneys, city council members, and several blown-up photos mounted on easels—announced an “unprecedented step” to combat prostitution in a small area well-known for it: They would sue.

The area is less than half a mile across, a small triangle bounded by the intersection of two major freeways and a main throughway, Bissonnet Street, in a part of Houston known for its diverse immigrant populations and the dense concentration of small businesses and restaurants catering to them. This stretch, dubbed “the Track,” has been plagued by crime—HPD tallied 3,800 reports of crime in the area from the beginning of 2016 through August of 2018, and a quarter of them were for prostitution-related offenses.

The plan was indeed unconventional: The county filed a civil lawsuit against 50 alleged sex workers, 23 alleged buyers, and 13 alleged pimps. The goal is to ban these 86 people from engaging in a wide array of “prostitution-related activities.” One person could be banned from sitting at the bus stop; another may not walk up and down the street. Several would be banned from using their cellphones in the zone.

Map of the Bissonnet anti-prostitution zone.
A map of the proposed Bissonnet anti-prostitution zone in Houston. Harris County Attorney’s Office

If they are caught breaking these rules, they could face fines of between $1,000 and $10,000 and up to 30 days in jail.

Celena Vinson, deputy managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s Office, took the podium after Mayor Sylvester Turner. “We want to take back this part of town,” Vinson declared.

“No longer is Bissonnet ‘the Track.’ No longer is this an area to go and buy women.”

But a year later, the injunction is on hold, as the case heads to trial next February. What the county called an “unprecedented step” was another way of saying that the model was largely untested. At the press conference, Turner noted there would be an “opt-out clause” for those who can show evidence of being trafficked and are willing to get help. Still, the suit—which publicly named all 86 defendants along with their known addresses before a judge ordered the names sealed in May—has been attacked by anti-trafficking experts for putting already vulnerable women and their families in grave danger by identifying them to the public.

The defense attorneys argue that nuisance abatement laws, which the county is basing the lawsuit on, are not supposed to target individual people; they’re meant to discipline businesses that flout laws, like bars that routinely serve underage patrons or the hourly motels or massage parlors where sex work takes place.

But this experimental lawsuit has bigger implications. Sex workers’ rights groups believe it has the potential to make already-dangerous work even more perilous. And legal advocates worry about the precedent it could set: Should government officials really have the power to banish people they deem unsavory from public spaces?

Only one other place in the U.S. has tried using a civil injunction against sex workers, as far as anyone involved in the Harris County case knows. Milwaukee banned 75 sex workers from loitering in three neighborhoods known for prostitution in 2002. That effort was largely seen as a failure, said Heather Hough, an assistant city attorney in Milwaukee.

According to Hough, the injunction was hard to carry out with an overburdened police force and a vulnerable and transient population. “On paper, it looks good. Logistically, it doesn’t look as good,” Hough said. “It just fizzled out. I believe the order still stands, but it doesn’t really have any teeth.”

Milwaukee’s civil injunction yielded one positive, according to Hough: It made residents feel like law enforcement was working to solve the problem.

“It was a great way to publicize that the city was aware that it was a problem in the area and that they were trying to do something about it,” Hough said of the Milwaukee injunction. “For that visibility it’s a really good idea, but to be effective at deterring prostitution? It didn’t work in Milwaukee.”

Vinson acknowledged that nobody from the Harris County Attorney’s Office reached out to the Milwaukee city attorney’s office to discuss the injunction. “Lots of jurisdictions have done other things,” Vinson said. “As far as whether it would work [here]? We don’t know, because we haven’t gotten an order signed.”

If the injunction takes effect in Harris County, it could place these 86 people in a legal gray area, where they may not be sure what rules they are violating and what civil penalties they’re responsible for.

Because the injunction is in civil court, not criminal, the named individuals can still be charged for prostitution-related crimes. And because each person is subject to different conditions, enforcement could be a challenge. Police wouldn’t be able to arrest individuals they saw violating the terms of the order. Instead, they would write a report and submit it to the county attorney, who would file a motion for contempt of the court’s order. A judge would hold a hearing and then decide whether to levy a fine or jail time against the individual.

The civil injunction on Bissonnet would not prohibit every named individual from entering into the zone. Alleged pimps who are targeted in the suit would be banned, but the named sex workers and buyers would be banned from specific activities related to sex work; Vinson said in the press conference that the prohibited activities could be decided by the judge on a case-by-case basis, even. But because the activities listed in the suit are vague—like waving, waiting at bus stops, or associating with specific people—legal advocates are worried that the suit could lead to discriminatory policing. “There’s always a risk that people’s biases will come into effect,” said Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas who filed a brief in the case.

The lawsuit includes others who were arrested, but never convicted, of prostitution-related crimes, which is a due process concern, says Anjali Nigam, an attorney who has represented three Jane Does in the case, all of whom have been dropped from the suit. The standard of proof in civil court is lower than in criminal court, and crucially, people are not appointed lawyers if they can’t afford one in civil court. But failing to adhere to the injunction could result in fines as well as jail time, making the tactic questionable from a constitutional standpoint, Nigam says. “The implications—not just the monetary sanctions but also jail time, when they don’t have the same rights in civil proceedings and the burden of proof is infinitely less—it’s a huge problem,” Nigam said.

Vinson has tested this tactic against others. Starting in 2010, Harris County banished alleged gang members from high-crime neighborhoods, steadily expanding both the number of banned people and the size of the off-limits area. Gang injunctions, commonly used throughout the country, are increasingly criticized for targeting black men and dictating what they wear, who they hang out with, and where they can live. Harris County’s first gang injunction in 2010, led by now–District Attorney Kim Ogg, prohibited 47 people from entering an area around a 700-unit public housing complex called Haverstock Hills, including a nearby school and shopping complex. In 2014, Vinson helped expand the Haverstock injunction to include 217 acres and added 47 more people to the banned list. Named defendants found in the banned areas face a Class A misdemeanor charge and up to a year in jail. The Houston Chronicle analyzed data from the sheriff’s office and found that crime dipped initially after the first injunction was implemented but started to climb after the second, expanded injunction went into effect.

In 2015, Vinson spearheaded an even more ambitious effort to prohibit 92 alleged gang members from ever setting foot in a two-mile area of a different Houston neighborhood. The attempt would have been the county’s largest proposed injunction both in size and in the number of defendants. But neighborhood activists and the ACLU fought back, accusing the county of using weak links to lump people in with gangs and prohibit them from entering an area where many grew up and their families lived. That injunction effort was scrapped in 2016 amid a public outcry.

Vinson said her experience with gang injunctions helped her to craft the current proposal, but suing sex workers has turned out to be a harder sell.

In one key difference, the district attorney’s office supported targeting gangs, but has refused to sign on to the county’s sex work injunction. The office declined to comment for this story and instead pointed to their diversion program for people arrested for sex work–related offenses, Project 180, which dismisses charges for young offenders and links them to services provided by the Houston Area Women’s Center.

Traditionally, nuisances aren’t people at all. The county has previously used these laws against businesses, like motels where prostitution has flourished. One such suit, against the Plainfield Inn inside the proposed injunction zone, resulted in a settlement after the motel installed security cameras and instituted other security measures, disallowed hourly rentals, and posted human trafficking hotline numbers in each of its rooms. Vinson said the county had originally pushed to close the Plainfield Inn’s doors, but judges in business-friendly Texas aren’t keen to shut down legitimate businesses, she said.

Janiece Charlez, a mother who says her daughter Natalie was trafficked at the Plainfield Inn before her murder in 2016, doesn’t think that suit went far enough. Charlez is suing the hotel for “knowingly benefitting from the human trafficking” of Natalie, as well as the now-defunct website Backpage.com for its alleged role in her abuse. In court filings, the Plainfield Inn owners “vehemently deny” these allegations. Charlez’s attorney, Annie McAdams, has used FOSTA-SESTA—the controversial federal legislation aimed at curbing sex trafficking online that critics warned would endanger sex workers and violate free speech more broadly—to sue websites like Facebook and Instagram on behalf of multiple victims and their families, and to sue motels in the area where plaintiffs say the abuse took place.

McAdams believes the county attorney’s office is taking the wrong approach by targeting individuals over businesses. “How can you explain why you are so aggressively prosecuting victims but not prosecuting the hotels where the police are at every night?” she asks.

Vinson said the county is still pursuing the suits against businesses, but the scope of the problem requires a different tactic. “We’ve sued at least four motels in the area, massage parlors, restaurants, spas, and this is just another tool, another way to go after it,” Vinson said at the press conference announcing the injunction. “Sometimes, you have to go after the people.”

Who are “the people”?

Angel Peckham, an adoptee from Mineola, Texas, “had big dreams about her future,” her obituary said, “and the small town life was just not part of it.” She ended up in Houston and was 17 when she was first arrested for prostitution. The address she gave to police was for a motel off the Southwest Freeway, in the boundaries of the proposed anti-prostitution zone. Her latest prostitution charge was in April 2018, which likely triggered her inclusion in the lawsuit.

Peckham was dropped from the suit in March, after defense attorneys listed her among several women named in the suit who were likely victims of sex trafficking. Just a week later, 22-year-old Peckham was found dead, strangled, in a vacant lot in East Houston.

Vinson said that Peckham was dropped from the suit because of information the county was given by defense attorneys that Peckham was a potential trafficking victim, and because she had completed a court-ordered program. She said that the lawsuit aims to get people like Peckham off the street. “I hate the idea that a 17-year-old was ever in the Bissonnet strip, and how anyone can ever argue that we shouldn’t keep her out of there is so confusing to me,” Vinson said by phone. “And look what happened to her.”

Lawyers for multiple women covered by the injunction say that including women like Angel Peckham in the first place shows that the county did not do due diligence before filing the sweeping lawsuit. Thirty-nine individuals have been dropped from the suit due to suspected sex trafficking or other reasons, leaving 47 people targeted by the injunction. Ann Johnson, a former chief human trafficking prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office who is serving as an expert witness in the case, says the suit further endangers all the women named and pushes them away from needed services and potential help.

“There’s a better way to go about doing it,” Johnson said. “This is a fool’s errand. You’re creating a difficult dynamic, and you’re going to push away the very people you want to trust law enforcement and come to law enforcement.”

Even if the suit is ultimately tailored to people who are not being trafficked, sex work advocates warn that the additional penalties will lead to further marginalization of those already struggling with poverty, homelessness, and drug use. If the injunction goes into effect, the names of those enjoined would be again made public. RK, a sex worker who runs Bad Date Houston, an organization that gives sex workers information about potentially abusive or nonpaying clients, said it’s not just sex workers who are put in danger by their public inclusion in a lawsuit. “When you make those lists public, whether it’s a mug shot or addresses, you put someone’s life in danger, but you also run the risk of having them lose a job they do have, or of harm to the small children that live with them. It increases the danger not just to the sex worker, but to their families,” RK said. (We are identifying RK by their initials due to safety concerns.)

Including buyers in the injunction, RK says, poses a different threat. “What happens is that the clients who are safe for sex workers to see are discouraged from accessing sex workers,” RK said. “It reduces the number of safe clients, and the ones who are emboldened by criminalizing sex workers are more dangerous for them.”

Street sex work like what’s occurring on Bissonnet is not ideal for sex workers, RK said, because it is much less safe than being able to screen clients beforehand. But with the recent implementation of FOSTA-SESTA, RK said, more sex workers have been pushed to the streets. “With the closure of things like Backpage, sex workers aren’t able to screen clients and do work in a safer way, so we are seeing more people doing street work,” RK said.

If a judge allows the injunction to move forward next year, it could accelerate a trend to ban other marginalized groups considered “nuisances,” like people experiencing homelessness or struggling with drug addiction. Other cities are testing the limits of their own nuisance laws to target individuals; in August, Sacramento sued to banish seven homeless people from large areas of the city. And as long as it’s still a legal gray area, the definition of who’s a nuisance might just keep expanding.

“It’s harmful when you take victimized people already on the margins and then subject them to civil penalties and further criminalize their conduct,” Klosterboer, the ACLU attorney, said. “That could have broad implications, when you’re trying to say that a person walking around and living their life is a nuisance.”