Law enforcement

Law enforcement

Prostitution is a complicated crime, causing a cat-and-mouse game for law enforcement agencies trying to sequester it.

Do you arrest the women? The men? Do you focus on the pimps? Do you pull the women out of the hotels and tell them to go elsewhere? Do you hang a giant billboard of the Johns' mugshots? Do you send the women to mandatory rehab?

Your answer to that question depends on which way you look at the issue. For law enforcement, it's a frustrating cycle of arrests and re-arrests.

"I've had them tell me that they have a drug habit - that this is what supports it," explained NHCSO Detective Evan Luther. "I've had individuals tell me they've been forced to do this. And then one just in the past week, 'I want to buy my kid a dirt bike for Christmas.'"

According to Luther, this is what people resort to because there is a supply and demand.

The ability to enforce the laws changed in 2013 with the creation of Safe Harbor legislation. North Carolina is one of eight states with Safe Harbor legislation (Senate Bill 683) to protect minors under 18 who are charged with prostitution.

The bill includes an immediate felony for soliciting prostitution if the female is a minor and it makes promoting prostitution (pimping) a felony.

Safe Harbor eliminated "not knowing" the age of the prostitute as a defense and now allows prostitution to be erased from a record in cases of human trafficking.

"Prostitution before the new law came out  was predominately sexual intercourse male with female," explained Luther. "Now it is broadened to any sexual contact for profit, money."

Before Safe Harbor, it had been more than a century since the prostitution laws had been re-written. There have been many changes to how the sex industry works and how society behaves since they were written in 1901.

New Hanover County Vice recently conducted a sting operation in a local hotel. They pulled a pimp, a John and several prostitutes off the streets in just one night.

"I knew when I got arrested this time that it was a cop's face," Nikki said. "When I asked him if he was a cop, I knew he was screaming 'Yes!' in his head."

But with hidden cameras watching, Nikki said and did everything Vice needed to charge her.

"We have to ask all the right questions and do all the right investigating to see which classification these individuals fit in," Luther explained. "Whether they're a victim, whether they're being trafficked, whether they are underage, whether they're just laughing in our face saying, 'I make $1,000 a week and I'm not going to stop.'"

All those different classifications of prostitutes exist on our streets. Throw in drugs, histories of abuse, pimps and constant cycles in and out of jail and you can see how difficult this crime is to fight. Locking everyone up and throwing away the key won't work.

"I'm going to go do the same thing," Nikki answered flatly when asked what she planned on doing upon her release.

Seizing the opportunity to turn their lives around is not always a realistic expectation.

"[The] reality is - I'm going to get out of here and I'm not going to have a car; I'm not going to have any money - if I do it all goes towards my bond, so I'm not going to have any money," Nikki explained. "I won't have a phone, so I'm going to have to go make money, something, somehow. If I don't want to live in a shelter, [or] in the woods, behind Target, I'm going to go do how I know to make money. In an hour - have a roof over my head in one hour. have a phone and have the drugs I want."

The women repeatedly say shelter and providing for themselves after being release from jail is the driving force in their return to prostitution. They also pointed out that getting a "real" job usually requires a permanent address, a clean drug test and no criminal record.

When leaving jail, the women typically have no where to go.

"You go to jail for 45 days and nothing is done," said Taylor. "You didn't get no help. You go back out to the same thing you just left from. So you really have no choice but to go back to doing what you were doing."

"They're wanting to get back to the only thing they know," added Louise Coggins, a licensed clinical social worker with Trinity Wellness. "And when they come out, whose the welcome party for them?"

Law enforcement doesn't have all the answers. If there was a solution to prostitution it would have been implemented already.

"If we target and stay on track, hopefully at some point in time we will send a message that says, 'Hey, we're here. We're watching what you do. If you engage in this activity, you will get caught,'" Luther said.

Often the biggest challenge for law enforcement is resources. There are far more prostitutes, Johns and pimps on the streets than there are agents to track them down. When several agencies are able to pool their resources, major arrests can be made.

New Hanover County Vice and the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office teamed up in January to arrest Marcus Tarter in an operation. Through an investigation, they had linked Tarter to allegedly posting Backpage ads for three women and taking a cut off their money.

Tarter called it a "dating service," but if sex is involved, the laws in North Carolina calls it pimping.

Once inside the Detention Center our camera stood facing Tarter as the magistrate explained to him his charges (including the prostitution of a minor) and that he was under a $5 million bond in light of her age. His bond was later reduced to $2 million. He is currently awaiting trial inside NHC Detention Center.

Copyright 2016 WECT. All rights reserved.