The headline reads, “LA City Council Considers Sending ‘Dear John’ Letters To Homes Of Men Who Solicit Prostitutes,” but what they’re considering is quite a bit worse than that.

Los Angeles is considering sending “Dear John” letters to the homes of men who solicit prostitutes hoping the mail will be opened by mothers, girlfriends or wives.

Privacy advocates are slamming the idea. The plan would use automated license plate readers to generate the letters, which would be aimed at shaming “Johns,” the Los Angeles Daily News reported.

The city council voted Wednesday to ask the City Attorney’s office to examine sending so-called “John Letters,” the Daily News reported.

Council member Nury Martinez, who represents a San Fernando Valley district that has a thriving street prostitution problem, introduced the plan.

Martinez has said many of the prostitutes are children, or women being exploited.

In a statement issued by her office Wednesday, Martinez said, “If you aren’t soliciting, you have no reason to worry about finding one of these letters in your mailbox. But if you are, these letters will discourage you from returning. Soliciting for sex in our neighborhoods is not OK.”

I’m personally of the “what consenting adults do on their own time is none of the government’s business” camp. The line about children and exploited women is odd, too. We’re now to the point where we’re passing laws aimed at potential johns suspected of soliciting prostitutes, simply because they were seen in an area where prostitutes are known to work, all because it’s possible that the theoretical prostitutes those suspected johns might have been soliciting are potentially underage or might have been forced in to sex work involuntarily.

But even if you support laws against prostitution, this is a pretty awful way to enforce them. True, no one is going to jail. You’re just potentially ruining lives. And as Nick Selby writes at Medium, Martinez is wrong. One needn’t have actually solicited a prostitute to get one of these letters.

Have Ms. Martinez and the Los Angeles City Council taken leave of their senses? This scheme makes, literally, a state issue out of legal travel to arbitrary places deemed by some  —  but not by a court, and without due process  —  to be “related” to crime in general, not to any specific crime.

There isn’t “potential” for abuse here, this is a legislated abuse of technology that is already controversial when it’s used by police for the purpose of seeking stolen vehicles, tracking down fugitives and solving specific crimes.

It is theoretically possible that a law enforcement officer could observe an area he understands to be known for prostitution, and, upon seeing a vehicle driving in a certain manner, or stopping in front of suspected or known prostitutes, based on his reasonable suspicion that he bases on his analysis of the totality of these specific circumstances, the officer could speak with the driver to investigate. This is very uncommon, because it would take a huge amount of manpower and time.

The City Council and Ms. Martinez seek to “automate” this process of reasonable suspicion (reducing it to mere presence at a certain place), and deploy it on a massive scale. They then seek to take this much further, through a highly irresponsible (and probably illegal) action that could have significant consequences on the recipient of such a letter  —  and they have absolutely no legal standing to write, let alone send it. There are grave issues of freedom of transportation and freedom of association here.

Guilt by association would be a higher standard.

Worse, they seek to use municipal funds to take action against those guilty of nothing other than traveling legally on city streets, then access the state-funded Department of Motor Vehicle registration records to resolve the owner data, then use municipal moneys to write, package and pay the United States Postal Service to deliver a letter that is at best a physical manifestation of the worst kind of Digital McCarthyism.

I’d add one more awful consequence to this policy: It’s essentially stating that there are some neighborhoods where a person’s mere presence is indicative of criminal activity — that the only reason one would visit these areas is to solicit sex for money. Think about what that says to the people who live and work in those areas. It’s also a pretty surefire way to prevent these neighborhoods from ever improving. Why would anyone travel to or through an area designated a “prostitution zone” to, say, offer job training, counseling, medical care or other services if doing so means their name winds up in a database of suspected johns?

The L.A. City Council is still considering the policy. But as the CBS Los Angeles article linked above points out, cities such as Minneapolis, Des Moines and Oakland, Calif., are already sending letters. Just wait until they start trying to take these people’s cars, too.

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices
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