In Allegheny County, condoms are viewed as an “instrument of crime,” resulting in the arrest of dozens of Pittsburgh sex workers, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported earlier in June. Intended to prevent human trafficking, sex workers are the targets, as undercover officers ask them for condoms, only to charge them with possession if they present them.

'Instruments of crime'

According to an analysis done by the Tribune-Review, 100 cases last year in Allegheny County were the result of police charging sex workers for possessing an instrument of crime, with 15 of those cases marking condoms as the instrument.

Meanwhile, in 14 other cases, police seized condoms as evidence.

Currently, prostitution is only classified as a third-degree misdemeanor. This means arresting officers let the suspects go, mailing a court summons to them at a later date. However, with condoms being classified as an instrument of crime, an arresting officer can add that charge, forcing the suspect to be processed. Their photos and fingerprints are then placed in a law enforcement database, ensuring their record is available for all police if the suspect gets charged elsewhere.

After receiving criticism and pressure from 17 Pittsburgh organizations, including SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project) Pittsburgh, via a letter, the office of Pittsburgh District Attorney Stephen Zappala responded on June 15.

In the letter, published on the Tribune-Review site, Zappala attempts to explain the classification of condoms as “instruments of crime.” He points to human trafficking as a justification, saying, “In this regard, the issue is not about the use of condoms, but about addressing human trafficking as a priority in our law enforcement community.”

However, he does acknowledge an issue with this characterization: “Part of the rationale for proceeding this way is that Chapter 59 of the Crimes Code specifically addresses knowingly transmitting HIV as a serious felony.” He continues by admitting that calling a condom an “instrument of crime” goes against public health policy.

Though he does not say it, it is likely because sex workers will now fear having condoms on them and possibly opt to not use them out of fear of being arrested. This fear could result in the spreading of STDs.

What can be done instead?

Members of SWOP would like to work with the Pittsburgh District Attorney's office to end human trafficking and prevent the spread of HIV.

To do this, however, sex workers should be protected. According to advocates of this profession, sex workers are on the front line. As a result, they could be helpful to law enforcement in identifying abuse or trafficking. One member of SWOP told Jezebel that because prostitution is such a small misdemeanor, police should focus on creating relationships with sex workers. This would allow law enforcement to be more prepared to fight sex trafficking and it would also allow them to put the right people behind bars.