Court Shoots Down South Florida Prostitution Law – West Palm Beach v. Chatman

In West Palm Beach v. Chatman, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals recently overturned a local ordinance criminalizing “loitering with the intent to commit prostitution.” The court said the law was unconstitutional because it was “overbroad and vague.”

The law prohibits a person from loitering under “circumstances manifesting the purpose” of soliciting or committing prostitution. Mr. Chatman was charged with the crime after a local police officer saw him standing in an area of West Palm Beach known for prostitution, dressed as a woman. Chatman told the officer he was waiting for a ride when approached. He was later arrested. A county court granted Chatman’s motion to dismiss the charge, ruling that the law was facially unconstitutional.

The Fourth District agreed on appeal. “The Constitution gives significant protection from overbroad laws that chill speech within the First Amendment’s vast and privileged sphere and an enactment is unconstitutional on its face if it prohibits a substantial amount of protected expression,” the court explained, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition.

In this case, the court said the law was overbroad because it did not prohibit actions and conduct performed with a specific intent – to commit prostitution – but instead that which “demonstrates” a specific intent. The court explained that officers could interpret some conduct, such as waving at passersby and walking down the street, as indicative of evincing ‘specific intent’ to solicit prostitution.

The court looked for guidance from what it called two “seminal” cases out of Tampa: Wyche v. State and Holliday v. City of Tampa. In Wyche, the Tampa loitering with intent to commit prostitution law at issue prohibited loitering “in a manner and under circumstances manifesting the purpose” to commit prostitution. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the ordinance was too vague because it relied too heavily on an officer’s interpretation of behavior and could criminalize conduct such as talking or waving to someone.

In Holliday, a decision handed down by the state high court on the same day as Wyche, at issue was a law that made it illegal to “loiter in a public place in a manner and under circumstances manifesting the purpose of” possessing or selling drugs. The court invalidated this law, which included an additional requirement that a person’s “affirmative language or conduct” must show intent to buy possess or sell drugs, ruling that it was overbroad.

Here, the court said West Palm Beach’s ordinance was similarly unconstitutional. The court held that, just as in Holliday, the city ordinance was unconstitutionally overbroad.

The court also said that the law was unconstitutionally vague. “For an enactment not to be unconstitutionally vague, it must provide persons of common intelligence and understanding adequate notice of the proscribed conduct,” according to the court. Here, the court said the statute was vague because it gave police officers the power to decide arbitrarily whether a person strolling down a street was violating the law.

If you are facing a prostitution or solicitation charge in Florida, contact the South Florida criminal defense lawyers at Anidjar & Levine. Our experienced and knowledgeable lawyers are committed to protecting your rights while mounting an aggressive defense.

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