Brooklyn judge vacates more than 850 old prostitution-related warrants

DA Gonzalez continues to send people to rikers island
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.
File photo by Colin Mixson

A Brooklyn Criminal Court judge vacated more than 800 old prostitution and loitering cases following a request by Kings County District Attorney Eric Gonzalez Wednesday.

The 857 warrants and convictions date back to 1970 and Justice Keisha Espinal granted the motion by Brooklyn’s top prosecutor and advocates to vacate and seal the cases, which Gonzalez said he hoped will undo decades of harmful criminalization of sex work.

“I hope that today’s action shows our community that as prosecutors we acknowledge the harm that the criminal justice system can cause when we don’t understand exactly the long-term consequences of our actions and I hope that this further bolsters trust in our justice system,” Gonzalez said during the March 24 virtual court hearing.

The court vacated 561 cases with the top charge of loitering for the purposes of prostitution and 296 warrants with the top count of prostitution, from between 1970 to 2011.

Gonzalez’s office in January vacated 262 warrants dating back to 2012, but was unable to access the older archived cases until recently due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The state legislature in February repealed the archaic and discriminatory loitering law, commonly referred to as the “walking while trans” ban, which police have used to disproportionately harass and arrest transgender women of color for baseless reasons, including for what they are wearing or whether or not they have an “Adam’s Apple,” reported Gay City News.

Albany lawmakers in 2019 tried to decriminalize prostitution entirely in the Empire State, but that bill never moved forward, so sex worker activists first turned their focus to the loitering law. Following the loitering law change last month, district attorneys in the Bronx and Queens also dismissed their outstanding warrants for that charge.

The warrants and convictions for these cases have negative consequences for the accused, according to Gonzalez, who said they should be treated with services instead of facing criminal prosecution.

“These collateral consequences drive people underground. I think it makes people less safe not more safe,” he said. “I also believe — and we also know very clearly — that convictions have a tremendous impact on people’s ability to have a stable life, to get employment, to get housing, to do a lot of the things that we want people to do.”

His office does not prosecute those arrested for prostitution, but instead dismisses their cases and refers them to services, such as counseling, medical assistance, education, housing assistance, mental health or substance abuse screening and therapy, and legal assistance with immigration, children’s services, or family court issues.

There are still more than 25,000 people who have been convicted for these cases in Brooklyn since the mid-1970s, according to an estimate by Gonzalez’s office, and the legal eagle called on state lawmakers to expunge their records en masse.

“We need a mass package from our lawmakers to figure out how to vacate or expunge these convictions,” he said. “These convictions do not keep us safer.”

One advocate for decriminalizing sex work hailed the Brooklyn DA’s move and said more work needed to be done to clear damaging convictions of the past.

“I’ve watched countless clients suffer under the weight of these charges. DA Gonzalez’s decision today is the first step in correcting the course for these people, however there is more work to be done,” said Legal Aid Society attorney Ryan Wall at the court hearing. “I look forward to working together with his office to clear the damaging and dangerous convictions that persist on the criminal records of sex workers and trafficking survivors.”